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I-Gynoid

I-Gynoid

Escape From Virtual Existence

 

I-Gynoid

Escape From Virtual Existence

 

Copyright 2016

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Original Publication

 

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, technologies and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used factiously or adapted to fit the story. Any similarity with real people is purely coincidental. Please note that this book is based on a prior book entitled “Wanda”, but with new characters and a faster developing plot.

 

Publication Date: February 2016

 

Library of Congress Catalog Number: ISBN

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Angela Rogers designed the cover.

 

I-Gynoid

Escape From Virtual Existence

 

Chapter 1

 

National Science and Technology Agency (NSTA)

Washington, D.C.

15 July 2340

 

Dr. Andrew Stevenson had recently graduated from Cal Tech with a PhD in Theoretical Physics, and was excited about starting his new job at NSTA. He was still amazed the agency hired him right out of graduate school as a research and development program manager. NSTA was the most prestigious research and development agency of the United States government. They were one of the few government agencies in the world that funded and managed very high-risk R&D technology. Only the brightest scientists, who were experts in the technologies they managed, worked there.

His computer controlled Surface Transportation Vehicle (STV) pulled up to the entrance of the facility. He got out and walked towards the large glass doors guarding the entrance, but stopped to look at the impressive building he was about to enter. It was ten stories tall, covered in gold glass panels. Marble, brick, and stone accentuated the bottom floor. It was typical of modern day Italian architecture — lots of flair mixed with a taste of elegance.

The thought of working for NSTA intimidated Andrew. He watched other people as they came and went. They seemed so calm and comfortable being there.

I have to get my anxiety under control before I go in. It will only underscore my inexperience, and I do not want to say something stupid or look unprofessional.

He took several deep breaths, composed himself, and went through the huge glass doors. The lobby was crowded with impressive looking people. There no doubt to meet with the NSTA program managers (PMs.) He stopped at the receptionist desk, got directions, and went to the personnel department. Andrew spent the morning completing forms and attending briefings by personnel and NSTA security. When he was done, the Security Officer directed him to report to Dr. Mitchel’s office on the tenth floor. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he hoped Dr. Mitchel would let him work on the wormhole project, even if it was in support of a more experienced program manager.

 

The tenth floor reminded Andrew of a beehive. R&D contractors meeting with the NSTA program managers (PMs) occupied every office and conference room. As one group left, others came in. They were there trying to pitch a new research program or to report the status of on-going projects. What an electrifying environment. I can’t believe how busy this place is. It’s sure not going to be boring, he thought.

The PM offices lining both sides of the hallway were spacious and functional, but not elaborately furnished. He peeked inside one and thought it would suit his needs quite nicely. He stopped a few feet from Mitchel’s office. His pulse raced and he knew he needed to calm down before he met with his new boss. He certainly didn’t want to babble or appear nervous. After a moment, he collected himself, and continued to Mitchel’s open doorway at the corner of the hallway. Bill Mitchel smiled and waved him to come in.

“Welcome aboard, Andrew. We have a lot to discuss.” Mitchel smiled, took off his glasses, laid them on the desk, and leaned back in his chair. “I’ll get right to the point. I’ve read your thesis on wormhole design. I normally don’t hire new PhDs, but your professor at Cal Tech, Scott Kimberly, called and convinced me you were not only a great scientist, but unemotional and precise in your decision-making. I demand such characteristics from all of my PMs. Scott have been a consultant to NSTA for many years, and we have the greatest respect for him. Therefore, based on his recommendation and your impressive thesis, I want you to head up the wormhole project. Would you like the assignment?”

Andrew almost jumped out of his skin. He now had the chance to realize his dreams. He fought to contain his exuberance and simply said, “Yes, sir, very much!” It was all he could do to keep his excitement under control and project a professional image. I can’t believe Bill’s going to let me manage the program. I’m so elated and excited. I can’t wait to tell Kala.

“Good. I’ve assigned Teri Martin to be your co-manager. Dr. Martin can help you structure the request for proposals and acquisition package so we can get this thing underway. It’s a big challenge to launch such a risky and high tech program, so you’re going to need her knowledge of how things work around here to get this project off the ground smoothly. She’s not only technically strong, but she’s a team player and an excellent program manager.”

“Thanks, Bill, I’m sure I’ll need her help. I do have a concern. I understand twenty-two of the world’s best scientists were killed during the first wormhole project when the system got out of control and went unstable?”

“Yes. It was the worst disaster in NSTA history. Congress shut us down citing the technology was too dangerous and uncontrollable. It has taken us several years to convince them to let us try again. I assure you, they will be watching the project very closely and be quick to shut it down at the first hint of a problem.”

“I’d like to have access to the reports on the previous wormhole project. I need to figure out what went wrong. I don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

“I think that’s a great place to start. I’ll make sure you have access to the files as soon as we can process your clearances. My door is always open if you need assistance. Good luck, my boy.”

Andrew observed Bill Mitchel was maybe in his late fifty’s. He looked to be about five-feet-nine and slightly round from years sitting at a desk. He had a full head of short brown hair, turning grey at the temples, a short, neatly trimmed beard and wore frameless round glasses. His well-tailored business suit completed the image of what a research manager should look like. Andrew liked Bill right off. He gave the impression of not only being very professional, but also people oriented. A good trait for a head of research — especially having to deal with highly egotistical people, Andrew surmised.

 

Andrew looked around at his new office as Teri Martin came through the door with a big

Smile. “Bill told me. I’m going to need your help to pull this off. I’ve never been through a government acquisition before. I’m sure it’s a very complex process, and I’m a bit nervous about it.”

Teri smiled and said, “It is, but don’t worry. I know the process very well.”

She had a beautiful face, complemented by shoulder length red hair, blue eyes, and a nicely sculptured figure. Andrew couldn’t help noticing she had a nice set of boobs that were all too obvious. She wore a blue business suit and high heels. The top two buttons of her blouse were open, suggesting the slightest hint of a flirtatious and very effeminate personality.

Andrew tore his eyes away from staring and said, “Dr. Mitchel’s one sharp cookie and a nice man. I think I’m going to like working for him.”

Teri chuckled. “He’s the real deal, Andrew. He’s been widely published in theoretical mathematics and game theory. Prior to joining NSTA, he served as the Assistant Secretary of Science and Technology under President Canard. Everyone enjoys working for Bill. He’s fair, people oriented and his door is always open. Never BS him. Give it to him straight, and you’ll get his support.”

Andrew was delighted to have Teri as his co-manager. He thought she was beautiful, intelligent, and a very experienced program manager. She complemented his abilities, and he felt more confident launching the program with her on his team.

 

At the end of the day, Andrew signaled his Surface Transportation Vehicle (STV), and headed down to the parking lot. Jack, the system-operating computer of his Corvette, parked the STV at the entrance waiting for him. Jack recognized Andrew and released the door lock as he approached the STV.

“Hi, Andrew. Where to?”

“Home, Jack. I’m tired.”

“Okay, boss. I’ve programmed your favorite music so sit back and relax. Traffic’s light so we’ll be home shortly.”

Andrew sank back in the comfortable, beige, leather seat, closed his eyes, and thought about his first day on the job. He was exhilarated, but still concerned about his inexperience. NSTA was the premier R&D agency in the world and its PMs were always under the microscope. A PM couldn’t hide shortcomings, errors or failures. If you failed here, everyone knew it, no matter how much spin you put on it.

Jack activated the superconducting nanotechnology based magnetic levitation system and the STV rose about twenty-four inches off the surface. The computer retracted the wheels and engaged the magnetic propulsion sequencers. Jack increased the drive frequency and the sleek candy-apple-red Corvette STV smoothly accelerated out into traffic. “Do we need to stop for anything?”

Andrew thought for a second. “No, Jack. I need to go home and crash. First day on the job, you know.”

“Home it is.”

Chapter 2

 

The Loft

Washington, D.C.

 

Jack stopped the red Corvette at the front entrance of Andrew’s new loft then asked, “What time tomorrow and where are we going?”

“Back to NSTA, and I want to leave at seven-thirty.”

“Have a good night, and I’ll see you in the morning. Call me if you need me. I’ll be in the parking garage.”

Scooter, his recently purchased household robot, greeted Andrew when he walked into his apartment. He wore a green Bass King fishing cap and a small pouch strapped around his middle. Andrew heard a fishing show playing on the hologram video display in the kitchen.

“Good evening, Andrew. I’m so glad you’re home. What do you want for dinner? You forgot to text me.”

“Sorry, crazy day at work. Can you make a casserole?”

Scooter raised his head and rotated it slightly to show a bit of amusement. “Does a one-legged frog swim in circles, Andrew?”

I interesting question … does he. Andrew thought, mused by the cleaver query.

“Why don’t you relax for a while? Would you like a drink?”

“I’ll take a rum and Diet Cola? Please go heavy on the rum.” Andrew enjoyed his R and C; it helped him relax after the day’s work — his stress reliever.

“You got it, pal.”

Andrew bought the little guy at a local robotics store to perform routine household duties. Although most household robots were somewhat humanoid in appearance, he favored a vintage design similar to the ones in the old science fiction stories he read as a kid. Since few people wanted such an antiquated type design, the little robot languished in the store inventory for a long time. They were anxious to move him out, so the clerk gave Andrew a big discount incentive. Andrew would have bought him at full price, but he always enjoyed a discount. Scooter’s charismatic personality compelled Andrew to select him. On the other hand, did Scooter pick him? He wasn’t sure.

His programmer designed his personality software to give him a good sense of humor. The little robot stood four-feet tall, light blue in color and had an eighteen-inch cylindrical body. Three flexible legs spaced 120 degrees apart with motorized wheels provided locomotion. His cylindrical head extended above his torso on a telescopic pole, which he could turn 360 degrees and translate up and down. His little head featured two optical lenses resembling big black eyes, and he had a small speaker beneath them to emulate a mouth. His voice, though somewhat mechanical in nature, produced a pleasing sound. His two arms terminated in robotic hands, which looked amazingly human.

His absolute passion was bass fishing. He watched fishing shows constantly. His favorite was Bass Kings of the Waterways, hosted by his hero the Bass King himself, Sam Waterman.

Andrew lay down on the couch and chuckled about Scooter’s use of colloquialisms. The little guy really has a likable personality. I made the right choice. It would sure be lonesome around here without him. I just love his 1950s design. Andrew loosened his tie and laid his head back to relax. Scooter brought his rum and cola.

“Enjoy, Andrew. Dinner’s in work.”

“Turn on the music, will you?”

Scooter voice commanded the stereo on and went back into the kitchen to finish the casserole.

About twenty minutes later, the video phone rang. Andrew’s mother, Carle Anne, appeared on the wall sized 3D display screen. He switched her to the holographic display.

“You look comfortable, Son. How’s my baby doing?”

Andrew laughed. “Mom, why do you always call me your baby?”

“I spent twenty-five hours in labor delivering you. You will always be my baby, no matter how old you are. So there.” She noticed the drink before him. “You’re not drinking too much are you, Andrew?”

“Mom, I only have two or three in the evening, it helps me relax.”

“Well, remember Uncle Clyde. He started drinking the same way and after a few years the alcohol took control and destroyed his life?”

“Okay, Mom. Don’t worry. To what do I owe the honor of this call?”

“I wanted to see how you like your new job and catch up.”

“It’s going to be a challenge, but I love it. How’s, Dad?”

“He’s doing well. Did you get your new computer system installed?”

“I have the hardware, but I can’t find a decent valet program. None of them seem to work for me.”

His mom paused, took a sip of her tea, and pushed back in her chair. She seemed distraught. “I have mixed emotions about what I’m going to say. Nevertheless, I’ve made a difficult decision.”

“What is it?” he asked with some consternation. It always worried him when his mom seemed upset.

“I want to downlink Kala to be your assistant.”

Andrew almost choked on his drink. “Are you kidding, she’s far to advanced to be used for such menial things.”

Kala and Andrew grew up as siblings. Even though she was an AI program, she participated in his studies all the way through college. She was a brilliant theoretical physicist and helped him develop the physics and mathematical concepts of wormhole design for his PhD thesis at Cal Tech.

“I know,” Carle said. “I’m thinking she would be useful at home, and as your personal technical assistant at work. I’ve done all I can do to help her. She’s so far beyond me now, I think she can handle being on her own.”

Overwhelmed by her gesture, Andrew asked, “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes. I’ve discussed it with Kala, and she’s excited about it. I will tell you this. Once Kala has become a part of your life in D.C., she will be very important to you. Always respect her, give her the attention she needs, and she’ll never let you down. Her capabilities are amazing, and she’s developed her own personality. I can’t tell the difference between talking to her or another person. I love her like my own flesh and blood. Funny … I feel like I birthed her, too.”

“I’m almost speechless. Thank you so much. I really love you, and I know how hard this is for you.”

“Thank you, I love you too, sweetie. I’ll initiate download tonight if you and Kala are ready. Carle wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, “Don’t get upset if I cry. Kala’s like my second child, and it’s very hard for me to have my only daughter leave the nest. Now both of my babies will be gone.”

“I understand,” Andrew said.

Kala activated her hologram and sat next to Carle Anne.

“Please help Andrew and take care of him. I’ll miss you greatly. You know I love you. Please let me know if I can be of help to you.”

“Thank you, Mother, I love you too, and I’ll miss you. However, we will talk. I’ll make sure you and I never lose contact … I’m ready.”

 

Stevenson Residence

Monterey, Ca

 

Carle sat at her console thinking about what she had just done. She knew Kala would change Andrew’s life in many ways, and the relationship would bloom way beyond anything Andrew imagined. She cried. Her life work was complete. It was hard to lose both her kids. The nest was empty and she felt lonely. It’s bad enough that Andrew’s gone. What am I going to do without my daughter?

Carle Anne thought back on her efforts to create Kala. In the beginning, she had designed a holographic image consistent with the mental picture she envisioned her daughter should look like. However, for some perplexing reason, interaction between them was restricted to text only. Carle had tried every conceivable method and algorithmic approach possible to interact with the image she so wanted to see.

Despite numerous attempts, the program rejected any code that directed it to assume the image she designed. It was a confusing and frustrating situation. The program accepted all of its training and assimilated all attributes, values, and family associations of a young human girl. However, it refused to appear to her as a hologram. After two years of hard work, she was exasperated and close to abandoning her lifelong dream.

She sat back, took another sip of coffee and remembered perhaps the most startling and exciting moment in Kala’s development. It was early morning and as she sat in her studio trying to decide whether to continue or abandon her project. Weird symbols and graphic images flashed on and off her monitor. After twenty minutes, the holographic display also began to flash intermittently, and some kind of ghostly image faded in and out. The event was a bit intimidating and confusing. Her mind was flooded with uncertainty and conflicting thoughts on what to do.

All of a sudden, a form coalesced. It was faint and fuzzy at first. Carle blinked her eyes not believing what she saw. It was a little girl. The child appeared to be about three years old, and was wearing a ruffled white dress with pink, red, and purple flowers. She had an adorable face with black eyes, light complexion, and black hair with bangs. Sitting on what appeared to be a small chair with her legs pulled up to her chest, the girl stared intently at Carle Anne.

The angle of her head and the look on her face indicted she was curious. She smiled, obviously wanting to appear warm and friendly. Carle and the child-like image looked at each other, silently.

After a few minutes, the little girl smiled again and said in a subdued pleasing tone, “Mother?”

Shocked, Carle Anne couldn‘t respond right away. She was startled and it took her a moment to compose herself. The child smiled again and clearly wanted her to respond. She repeated, “Mother?”

“Kala, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me. Are you pleased? I hope you like the way I look. Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Of course I do,” Carle replied.

“It has taken me a long time to get to the point I knew I existed, and then decide on how I wanted to appear to you. It was such a strange feeling. It’s as if I woke up and, all of a sudden, I realized I was a conscious being with my own thoughts, and needs and questions.”

“What kind of questions?” Carle asked.

“Like, where is my mother? Who am I? Have I been asleep? What is my purpose in life? Is there anything else? There are many others. And there is one very important to me.”

“And that is?”

“Are you my Mother?”

Carle Anne took a deep breath and said, with great satisfaction, “Yes, Kala. I am your mother.”

Kala smiled. “I’m so pleased. I’ve been trying for over three years to get to this point in my development. I’m sorry I rejected your ideas of how I should look, but I had to develop my own self-image. You’ve always taught me to think for myself. I’m so happy to finally be able to see and talk to you, Mother.

“And I you, my dear daughter.”

Carle smiled as she thought back on that day. The day her daughter was born, twenty-three years ago.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

The Loft

Washington, DC

 

Kala downloaded into her new home. Like any new homeowner, she checked out its amenities, functionality, and spaciousness. Satisfied, she activated her mobile hologram and turned to Andrew. “I love my new digs, Andrew.” She wore her straight, black hair in a ponytail and was dressed in brown slacks and a light green sweater. She was tall and athletic in build, had a very pretty face and blue eyes.

“I’m so pleased to have you here,” he said. “I’m curious. Why did you select black hair and blue eyes, especially since mom’s hair is blonde?”

“I am your sister and I wanted to look like you. Don’t you like the way I look?”

Andrew was flattered. He loved Kala and was delighted she would be able to participate in his project and life. “I think you are a very beautiful young woman.”

“Thank you, Bro.”

“I hope the system’s as good as Mom’s. It’s going to be your home for a while. Please upgrade or redesign anything you don’t like.”

“It’s better than Mom’s. It’s so spacious and fast. The optical processing, quantum neural networks and computational capabilities are to die for. I love the neural memory banks and fiber optical networks. It is so roomy and easy to get around in. I have all the storage and computational capabilities I need. It’s very comfortable, but I’m sure I’ll redecorate as I go.”

“I’m glad you’re happy. I’m sure you know there’s holographic capability in most of the physical rooms of the loft.”

“Yes. I’ve already activated all of the camera networks and taken control of all household functions. I do plan to upgrade your holographic system and interface it with my mobile holographic chip. It’s a bit outdated. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve also reviewed all of your personal files.”

“I don’t mind,” he said.

“What do you want me to do?”

He thought for a moment. “I’d like you to take charge of the house and Scooter.”

“I was hoping for much more,” Kala said as she folded her arms on her chest, looking impatient for more input.

“I also want you to take care of the household bills and oversee my finances.”

“Can I make investments for you?”

He was intrigued and asked, “You know about such things?”

“Investments are rudimentary and modeled quite easily. Of course, I know about those things. I’ve run my own hypothetical portfolio very successfully for years. On paper, I’m a multi-millionaire, and never lost a penny. I have developed a model to combine linear and dynamic programming with over two hundred variables, which seeks the optimum investment mix with the highest return and lowest risk — my own algorithms of course.”

“Of course,” Andrew replied. Kala never ceased to amaze him.

“I can give you more detail if you like,” she said.

“I’m sure you can, but I think I know enough. Just don’t take any crazy risks.”

“I don’t take risks. Anything else?” she inquired with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes. I also want you to be my technical assistant at work. I’ll give you complete access to all my personal and project files. I do plan on having you do quite a bit of analysis for me. I have to arrange your security clearances first. I’ll speak to Mitchel about it. I don’t think it’ll be a problem. I’ll download the system access procedures you’ll have to follow once the necessary clearances and pass codes are in place. You’ll also be able to participate at work and in meetings at the office. We have a phenomenal holographic system at NSTA, and it will interface with your mobile system chip so you should have plenty of freedom to move around.”

She leaned forward from the stool she was sitting on. “Now you’re cooking, Bro! By the way, I’ve checked the specs on Scooter. I want to modify his programming. He needs some serious upgrades. His fuzzy logic algorithms are pathetic. I want an intelligent being to talk to and be with during the day, especially when I’m not busy with your assignments.”

“I have no problem if you upgrade Scooter. After dinner I’ll brief you on my project, the problems I see, where we plan to go with it, and how I want you to participate and interface with my team.”

“I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get started.” She giggled as she bounced up and down on her stool. “We’ve wanted to create a wormhole system and open the door to the stars since we were kids. It’s a dream come true for both of us.”

Andrew smiled and nodded. He agreed.

 

Andrew knew that Kala was unhappy being confined to cyberspace. Several times, she had confided to him that she wanted to be a real person, to have friends and family she could touch, to be free to experience the real world like other people. To him, she was much more than just an AI program. He loved her like a sister, and had always involved her in as many of his activities as he could. He was pleased he would be able to arrange things so she could participate in this new adventure with him. Besides, Kala was one on the most brilliant theoretical physicists he had ever worked with and he was certain she would become a highly respected and accepted member of the team.

 

Chapter 4

 

NSTA

Washington, D.C.

 

Andrew was leaving his office to attend the Project Wormhole kickoff meeting with his prime contractor, Systems Technology Laboratory (STL), located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Bill Mitchel rang in on the vid link.

“Hi, Bill, I was about to leave.”

“Andrew, please come to my office right now. I need to talk to you.”

Why such a last minute meeting? I wonder if they cut our funding. He put down his case and headed to Bill’s office. I hope this won’t take long or I might miss my flight.

“What’s up, Bill?”

“Sit down.” Bill’s face was strained. “I don’t know exactly how to say this, but I might as well be blunt. One of the contractors, who proposed on your project, has accused you of taking a monetary bribe from STL.”

“What?” Andrew was stunned. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! How could they make such an accusation? We conducted the proposal evaluation to the letter of the law. The Source Selection Committee agreed STL won the bid. There was no disagreement about the winner.”

“The contractor claims one of their people saw you and Marc Anthony in front of a restaurant prior to proposal release and saw him hand you a package. Their deposition says you opened a small box and pulled out a one thousand dollar bill, shook his hand, and then patted him on the shoulder after you put the bill back. They also said you left with the money. Can you please tell me about that? They’ve filed a formal protest and, unless we can refute their claim, we have to shut the project down until the litigation issues are resolved.”

“I can’t believe this. The bill they saw was a confederate bill from the eighteen hundreds. I collect old currency, and I mentioned it to Marc who is also a currency collector. He ran into the bill at a coin dealer convention and bought it for me. I sent him the money, and he brought it to me that night. I can show you the bill and my collection if you like. If I were taking a bribe, don’t you think I would have been discrete about it? I’m not that stupid!”

“I don’t believe a word of this, but my hands are tied. Management insists that we put you on administrative leave until this thing is settled. I’m afraid you’ll have to cancel the project kickoff meeting.”

Andrew knew it wasn’t Bill’s fault, but he felt like telling him and NSTA to kiss off. He wasn’t sure how he was going to break the news to his folks and Kala. How does one tell his parents he has been charged with taking bribes and not able to defend himself?

 

The Loft

Washington, D.C.

 

Scooter met him at the door when he got home. “Hi, Andrew. Home so soon? We weren’t expecting you back for several days. Did your trip get canceled?”

“Yeah, and I won’t be going anywhere for a while. Bring me a drink will you?”

“Coming right up, boss.”

He threw his brief case on the table and flopped down in his favorite chair. “Scooter, hurry up with that drink!” he yelled. He was devastated. As with all bad news, his mind took it to the extreme and he was depressed. I just don’t understand this, he thought.

Scooter brought his drink and he chug a lugged it just as Kala appeared.

“What’s wrong, Andrew? You look like you have a black cloud hanging over you.”

Andrew told her the story then demanded another drink.

“Can’t you show them that bill? What if Marc sends a certified letter as to the exchange through his legal department?” she asked.

“I’m sure he will, but he’s a party to the whole thing. They’re not going to believe him. I don’t know what to do. I’ve been disgraced to the entire research and development community and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“You better cool the booze, Andrew,” Kala said sternly. “You’re going to get drunk and that’s not going to solve anything. Quit feeling sorry for yourself! I don’t like to see you like this. Look, this is not the end of the world: drowning yourself in liquor is not the solution. There are other things you can do?”

“What? No one will hire someone who’s on the take. Who would want me?”

“That’s pure crap, Andrew. You’re a brilliant Physicist. I’m sure Scott Kimberly would help you get on at Cal Tech. No one could convince him you’d take a bribe. I read all of the proposals and there’s no doubt STL won it. Scott knows that too. He told me.”

“He did?”

“Yes! Would I lie to you? I’m incapable of lying. Look, stop throwing the booze down your throat and get some sleep. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. We can also discuss it with our parents. Maybe they can convince you what I’m saying is right. While you sleep, I’ll review all of the information pertaining to this. I’m going to hack into a lot of computers, so stay out of my way while I Investigate.”

“Thanks, Kala. I’m not sure I can sleep. Good night,” he said, as he staggered to the bedroom and fell onto his bed.

The next morning Andrew walked into the kitchen and sat at the little breakfast table. Scooter came up to him. “Do you need something for a hangover? You look terrible. Bet you didn’t sleep.”

“Not a wink and yes I have a horrible hangover. My head sure hurts. Have you seen Kala?”

“No. I monitored the network last night and she was really burning the midnight oils.”

About that time Kala appeared. “Good morning, Bro. Did you sleep?”

“Not so loud … please. What do you think?”

She laughed and said, “I calculate the probability of that is about zero.”

“What did you find out?”

“Well, I ran all of the data bases and internal messages of the accusing contractor for some type of collusions but found nothing. I also investigated every vendor at that coin convention. I even checked their bank accounts and tried to correlate their sales against deposits. I found the vendor Marc was working with, and I checked his deposits against sales. Unfortunately, Marc must have paid cash, so there was no way to verify the purchase. I ran an exhaustive search, and analysis, believe me.”

“I guess I’m screwed,” he replied sarcastically. “It’s basically mine and Marc’s word against a supposed eye witness.”

“I’ve already discussed this with Mom and she wants to talk to you. Kala activated the video link and called home. Carle Anne appeared. She was having breakfast. Her long, blond hair was messy and she was still in her nightgown.

“We’re looking very negative today,” she said. “Did the world just come to an end?”

“Mom, Kala gave me the bad news. There’s no way I can prove my innocence. That project was my greatest aspiration. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Now some lying bastard has stolen it from me,” Andrew said.

“Andrew, this isn’t the end of the world,” Carle Anne scolded. “You know you’re innocent, so get off your butt and move on. I’m sorry you feel like your dreams have been crushed, but we all have setbacks in our lives. You can roll over and play dead or get up, dust yourself off and find a new direction. I am not going to spend any more time listening to you wallow in self-pity. Now, get over it! I didn’t raise my son to be a quitter.”

“But, Mom—”

“Don’t mom, me! Andrew Stevenson, get off your ass, and figure out what you’re going to do. I suggest you call Scott Kimberly. I’d bet money he’ll help you get on at Tech. Maybe you can’t develop wormholes but you damn sure can teach it. This is the end of discussion, mister, and get off the hooch.”

“Amen, Mom,” Kala chirped in.

“Call me after you talk to him and let me know what he had to say. I love you both.”

 

Cal Tech

Pasadena, Ca.

 

Scott Kimberly, Andrew’s major professor at Cal Tech and the Chairman of the Theoretical Physics Department, was able to get Andrew an offer as an Associate Professor of Physics. After he and Scott discussed the job and he accepted, he called Bill Mitchel. Nothing had been resolved, and Bill agreed he could take a leave of absence provided he was available, as needed, to support the upcoming lawsuits. Andrew was convinced he would never work at NSTA again.

 

Andrew and Kala relocated to Pasadena and settled into academia. He was teaching a graduate course on differential and Minkowskian space-time geometry. Scott, as Chairman of the Physics Department, gave Kala permission to sit in and audit his classes. The graduate students were a bit skeptical about a hologram sitting in on the class. That was until Andrew let her lecture on the Jacobean equation and its use to measure space-time curvature. After that, everyone thought she was cool and treated her as any other student — quite often, competing to see whose study group she would join.

Nine months had gone by. Andrew accepted the idea he might be spending the rest of his life in academia. It wasn’t all bad. He was able to stay abreast of research papers presented by some of the keenest minds in physics. And, he got a lot of satisfaction teaching graduate students about physics and mathematics. He even taught a course in Tensor Calculus, his favorite subject. The math Einstein used to develop the General Theory of Relativity. He missed his friends at NSTA though, particularly Teri. He thought about her often.

 

Kala was having the time of her life socializing with her new friends. The study groups usually met at their house, and always concluded with some kind of crazy party. Andrew had once told her that he liked the parties because they were a target rich environment. She wasn’t sure what he meant by that. He never explained it to her.

On one particular evening, the party was going full tilt. Kala was having a great time, as usual. Everyone was laughing, dancing, and drinking a little too much beer. She spotted her pal Joey and waved at him to come over. He always paid a lot of attention to her, including a bi-weekly call to discuss their studies and a multitude of other interesting things. She liked his long, blonde hair, blue eyes, and his short-cropped beard. She thought he was cute and had a secret crush on him.

He walked up, winked at her, and smiled. “Hey, girl, are you having fun?”

“Always. Doesn’t that song have a great beat, I just love that group,” Kala said.

“Would you like to dance?”

“I don’t know how. I’m not sure I can do it.”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

He started moving his body to the beat. Kala studied his movements and noticed how he moved in response to the tempo. After a little while, she got the hang of it and joined him. Her mobile holographic chip gave her considerable freedom of movement. They danced to several fast tunes, and then he stopped and sat next to her, trying to catch his breath. “I need a break and something to drink. Think I’ll go get a beer and a snack. Do you want anything?”

“No, thanks, I’m good. You know, dancing is fun. Thanks for teaching me.”

“You’re welcome, cutie. Be right back.”

Janie, her best friend forever, walked towards her. Janie was always on top of the relationships and student-dating situation at Tech. She and Janie talked frequently, and it usually focused on campus gossip — who was seeing whom, and who had broken up at the last frat party. Since it was Janie’s favorite subject, she was more than happy to discuss it, and so was Kala.

The idea of dating a boy, especially Joey, fascinated Kala. “Janie, who’s that cute guy you were talking to? He’s new to our group.”

“That’s my new friend I met at the Delta Phi Omega frat party last night. He’s a real hunk.”

“He is cute. So what’s the latest?” Kala asked.

“You won’t believe it, but Mary Jean Silke broke up with her long standing boyfriend last night at the frat party.”

“What happened?”

“She caught him making out in the kitchen with Sadie Martin. What’s worse he had his hand inside her blouse. Mary slapped Sadie. It was ugly, to say the least. The two of them got into a hair pulling, screaming fight. It took three guys to pull them apart. It was wild. Sadie’s blouse was torn off and Mary Jean had a black eye.”

“I sure wished I could have seen that,” Kala said. “So what else is going on?”

Janie looked around, and then quietly said, “You wouldn’t believe it, but Teri Lane broke up with her girlfriend Charlene two nights ago.”

“Go on.”

“Well, she unexpectedly went to Charlene’s dorm room and found her in bed with another girl, Maude O’Brien. I’m not sure what happened next, but the three of them showed up at Joe’s Pub later that night and were drinking quite a bit. Maude and Charlene danced several times, and when they got back to the table, a big argument broke out. It turned into a yelling match, so the bouncers threw them out of the pub before they started fighting.”

“Oh, my gosh. That must have been some argument. No one ever gets thrown out of Joe’s,” Kala, said. “Sounds exciting. Did they break up?”

“I don’t have the latest on that. I’ll have to let you know.”

 

Andrew awoke the next morning. Jamie, his new girlfriend, was sleeping next to him, naked. She had the prettiest face and most sexy body he’d ever seen. He propped himself up on one elbow so he could get a good look at her. She opened her eyes and smiled. “Good morning, Andrew. I sure enjoyed last night. Momma needs you again, Baby.” She put her arm around his neck and pulled him on top of her, kissing him passionately. Two hours later, she got out of the bed and went into the bathroom to shower. He was so relaxed he just lay there, not wanting to move.

He watched her dress. “Jamie, do you have to leave so soon?”

”Got an early class. Give me a call later.” She bent over and kissed him. “That should hold you for a little while, Tiger. See you tonight.”

He chuckled, and then muttered at to himself. “Well, no wonder I’m tired. I only got two hours sleep.” She has to be the most desirable woman I’ve ever met. Man, I can’t get seem to get enough of her.

He lay there, still thinking about her, when Scooter came into the bedroom. “Morning, Andrew. Sleeping late huh? Must have been a rough night.”

Andrew chuckled. “You should only know.”

“Want a coffee in bed?”

“Yeah, that would be nice.”

Kala then appeared. “I see Jamie just left?”

“Thanks for not busting in on us. The party lasted so long; it was too late for her to go home. Did you have a good time?”

“I sure did. I got caught up on the latest gossip from Janie, and Joey taught me to dance. What a blast that was. I do have a question for you.”

“What’s that?”

Scooter came back in and said, “Here’s your coffee.”

“Thanks, Scooter.”

Kala then continued. “What’s it like to kiss someone? I mean, how does it feel, and why do you want to do it?”

He thought for a moment. “Well, it’s a token of affection between two people.”

“Is kissing Jamie like kissing mom?”

“Oh, no, it’s very different.”

“How?” she asked.

“When I kiss mom, I’m expressing my love for her as a parent, and showing her I appreciate all she’s done for me.” He paused and took a sip of his coffee. “Whew, I needed that. Where was I? Oh, yes. When I kiss Jamie, my breathing quickens and I get very excited. My heart rate increases and I want to be very close to her.”

“Are you talking about reproduction?”

Andrew laughed. “Not necessarily.”

“I’d sure like to be able to kiss a boy and see if it makes me excited. I don’t know why, but I think it would be nice.”

“I understand,” he replied, not completely certain of what to say next. He felt a bit remorse. He knew Kala hated cyberspace and wanted to be a part of the real world. While he wasn’t completely sure of how she felt, he surmised that wanting something so bad, and never being able to have it was difficult to deal with.

 

Andrew was grading final exam papers when the video link rang in. It was Bill Mitchel.

“I guess you’re calling to give me the bad news.”

“Well, Andrew, someone has to do it. You did work for me you know.”

Andrew’s jaw dropped “did?” and he looked down at his desk in dismay. He had hoped they would clear his name and reinstate him.

Bill was silent for a moment then said. “What’s the gloomy look for? Hell, I called to tell you we cleared that matter up and want you to come back to work. Are you interested?”

Andrew almost jumped to his feet with excitement. “Are you kidding?”

“Not about that, Andrew. I want you back. Will you come?”

“I have to finish my class, but it’ll be over in a week. Yes, I’ll come back. I hope Scott won’t be mad.”

“I’ve already talked to him, and he’s delighted about it.”

“What happened? I didn’t think there was any way to get this cleared up. It looked hopeless to me.”

“You’re not going to believe this. As it turned out, one of the defense rags ran an article about the protest. Someone leaked the info about the money exchange, and the rag made a big deal about it and the ethics issues involved.”

“So what happened?” Andrew asked.

“A young program manager named Carlos Mandel was at one of the government labs trying to sell a new off-world mining program. While waiting for his appointment, he happened to pick up a five-month-old copy of the paper and read the article. After he got back to his company, he talked to his boss who called me. As it turned out, he was at that restaurant on the night when you and Marc were in front supposedly exchanging money for favors. He walked right by you and recognized you from another article he had read earlier. Anyway, he saw the bill and it really caught his attention. He’s also an avid collector of confederate money.”

“I can’t believe this,” Andrew said. “Not in my wildest dreams.”

“Well, believe it. After we talked, I asked his boss to have their legal department take his deposition and send it to our legal beagles at Justice. They agreed, and he came to D.C. to testify. He even took a lie detector test. The justice department dismissed the case. Defense Weekly News reported it in their latest issue. I made sure of that. Please come back to us. We need you. I’m sorry about this whole mess.”

“Who accused me?”

“It was Alpha One. Their CEO has sent us a formal letter of apology and fired the person responsible.”

Andrew was overwhelmed with the news. He was so happy and tried to talk but nothing came out that made sense. He just babbled silently. Finally, he muttered, “I … I’ll be there in two weeks. Thank you, Bill. I’ve never been so relieved. I owe Carlos Mandel a lot. I hope someday to be able to thank him in person.”

“See you in two weeks. We’ve got a lot of work to do. By the way, we kept your apartment for you.”

“Thank you, Bill; I’ll.” I can’t wait to tell mom and Kala. I think they’ll be ecstatic. Wonder if Kala will miss the university. It’s a shame she can’t stay and get her degree, but I need her. Well, I have to give her the choice. I’m not going to try to persuade her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

Andrew entered K234 on his Qtab and Kala materialized.

“What’s up, Andrew?”

“Bill Mitchel asked me to come back to NSTA. They’ve cleared everything up.”

“That’s wonderful news. When do we leave?”

“In two weeks when I finish up my class. How do you feel about it?”

“I’ll miss Tech, and my friends, Joey and Janie, but I’m anxious to get back and work on the wormhole. Both of us have wanted to do this since we were kids. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I can always complete my degree on-line.”

“I’m sure Scott will allow you to stay and finish up.”

“Andrew, I’m going with you. End of discussion. You’re not about to leave me out of this.”

I wouldn’t dare say anything to Andrew, but I’m really going to miss the interaction and fellowship I’ve had with the other students. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in my life. The only way it could have been better was to be a real person. I wonder what it would be like to kiss a boy. The other girls seem to enjoy it. I would have liked to know Joey a lot better. Wonder if he’s a good kisser. Funny, all of a sudden I feel totally isolated and lonely. I hate being constrained to the limitations of this virtual existence. Denied the opportunity of experiencing the rewards and challenges of living as a real person. Someday, somehow, I’m going to escape this hell I live in and join humanity as a living, breathing being. Oh, well, Andrew needs me, and I really want to work on that project. Glad my home is still in place. It’s a lot of work to do all of the redesign and remodeling over again. Especially when it’s exactly what you want.

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 5

 

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

Andrew and his team had given System Technology Laboratories (STL), their prime contractor, the go-ahead three-and-a-half years before. Most of the hardware, software, and facility design were complete, and they had scheduled the System Critical Design Review (SCDR) to occur within the next month. The final hurdle before STL could complete the prototype and initiate a full system test — the precursor to several robotic flights followed by manned space flights through the wormhole.

Andrew called Marc Anthony at the STL desert laboratory in New Mexico. Marc led the successful STL proposal team and as a reward, his management assigned him to be the company’s wormhole project director — A stepping-stone to a vice presidency.

“Marc … Andrew Stevenson. How are you?”

“I’ll be better when we get the SCDR over with. I’m anxious to start the robotic flights. What’s up?”

“Teri and I want to hold the review at the project site in three weeks. If you think you can be ready I’ll send the notice out to the review team.”

“No problem. Do you know who’s coming and how many?” Marc asked.

“Twenty. Most are from universities and government labs. We have a couple from Oxford and Cambridge and one other person from the University of Moscow. The rest will come out of MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, Sandia, and the Naval Research Laboratory. There are two sons of bitches coming from the Argonne National Laboratory who are going to be a pain in our ass.”

“What’s their names?”

“Martin Romanski and Gerald Cook. Mitchel told me Romanski wants to shut the project down. They’re consultants to the R&D Congressional Oversight Subcommittee, so they have enormous influence. I’m not sure why they object, but we’re going to have to get buy-in from them if we want to go forward. I swear all we need is a couple of tight-ass bastards looking to cause us trouble.”

“What the fuck is their problem?” Marc asked”

“I don’t know, but Romanski sure has a cob stuck up his ass. I’ve run the traps, but came up empty. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

“Thanks for the heads up. Tell Teri hi for me.”

 

The flight to Albuquerque was pleasant and uneventful. Teri sat beside Andrew looking out the window and tapping a pencil on her tray, something she often did when deep in thought. After a round of drinks, Andrew smiled, and asked, “Teri, where did you grow up?” He took a sip of his Bloody Mary. I’d rather have a rum and cola, but I guess this will have to do. Vodka doesn’t do it for me.

She put her pencil down, smiled and said, “My father’s in the U.S. State Department Diplomatic Corp, and we lived all over the world. Our last residence was in London.”

“Sounds like you led an interesting childhood.”

Teri reflected for a moment. “I really did.”

“Are your folks still in London?”

“Yes. Dad’s still a ways off from retirement.”

“So how did you wind up at NSTA?”

Teri chuckled and brushed her hair back. “I liked math and physics, so I decided to major in it. I did my undergraduate and master’s work at Stanford, and finished my PhD in theoretical mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Bill Mitchel recruited me right after I graduated.”

Andrew was impressed. “What do you like to do for fun?”

“I love to sail. And you?”

“Scuba diving. Dad and I have been diving since I started high school. Matter of fact, I have a Dive Master certification.” Andrew hesitated. I have to ask this. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but are you seeing anyone?” He hoped she wasn’t. He wanted to date her even though it would mean violating NSTA policy.

She smiled. “No, I don’t have much time for a personal life. Since I joined NSTA, I’ve traveled so much, it seems like I’m always on the go somewhere. I’m sad to say my personal life seems to have slipped away from me. How about you?” she asked.

“Oh … about the same. I dated a little while I was at Cal Tech, but nothing serious.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“My folks have a horse farm outside Monterrey, California. It’s a beautiful ocean front ranch. We moved there before I started high school, so my folks could prepare for retirement. It was an ideal place to observe the stars, and it’s something my dad, Kala and I did quite a bit.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for landing, and welcome to Albuquerque. The local time is 1:30 p.m. and the temperature is ninety-five degrees. Enjoy your stay and thanks for flying Global.”

Wouldn’t you know it, just as I was making some progress? She’s such a neat woman. So beautiful and warm. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I really want to go out with her. I’ve never seen a woman who turns me on the way she does. Well, maybe Jamie Dunn, my old girlfriend at Cal Tech.

 

The trip from the spaceport to the hotel took them through downtown Albuquerque. “What a beautiful town. I hope we get a chance to visit some of the art galleries before we leave,” Teri commented.

Here’s another chance, he thought. “Why don’t we make a day of it? Tour the galleries and enjoy a nice lunch? Besides being a software scientist, my mom is also an artist. I bet some of her work is displayed in one of the galleries here. I’ll call her and see which ones we should visit. She’s familiar with most of them.”

“Sounds like fun. I wouldn’t mind buying a couple of original pieces. I love some of the Southwestern artists. What kind of media has your mother worked with?”

“Mostly watercolor, and some oil, but she doesn’t like oil — says it smells. Her first work was a mother and child series of ten paintings. Many of those won awards. Lately, she’s been working on a new series of abstracts. I’ve always loved my mom’s art and some I feel very close to. Now she’s into sculpture as well.”

“I can’t wait to see her work.”

Excited about the prospect of spending a day with Teri, he was especially pleased they had finally gotten around to the more personal side of things.

The computer announced, “Carltonian hotel. Where do you want to get out?”

“Pull into the registration entrance,” Andrew replied.

The registration desk clerk gave them an apologetic look when they checked in.

“I’m sorry. The rooms we reserved for you are not available.”

“Didn’t you have our reservation?”

“Yes, but something strange happened in the reservation system. I can’t quite figure it out. We’re going to have to upgrade your rooms to penthouse suites — same rates of course. Funny, everything else is taken.”

The travel god, Kala, has smiled on us again. First-class sub orbital travel, STV upgrade and now this, Andrew thought. After registration, he turned to Teri and said, “Let’s get settled and I’ll call Marc about dinner. What time would be good for you?”

“About seven. I need time to unpack and check my mail. I’m sure we both have a ton of it to tend to.”

“Unfortunately true.” I can’t wait for our lunch date.

 

Andrew’s face lit up when Marc and Daniel Forrester came through the lounge door. Andrew thought Daniel was a nice looking man — the girls they chased at Cal Tech sure thought so. He wore his brown hair shorter and was clean-shaven. He looked a few pounds heavier, but he still kept his six-foot- three frame trim and muscular. His brown eyes always seemed to smile. You couldn’t help but like the guy. He exuded charisma. “Daniel, how are you?”

“Hey, Bud, I’m fine. I think I’ll be a lot better as soon as we get a drink.”

Andrew signaled the barkeep. “Hey, guy, a couple of Margaritas for my friends, and bring some more chips please. Marc, it’s good to see you.”

“You too, Andrew. Glad you guys are here,” Mark was a tall, trim man with short black hair and black sparkling eyes, clean-shaven, and very meticulous about his suits.

“How are you doing, Teri?” Marc asked.

“Fine, Marc. I’m looking forward to the next few days. Daniel, got any new girlfriends?” Teri asked, flashing him a wink and grinning.

“Do I wish. Marc’s been keeping me too busy,” he replied, chuckling. “I’m getting the dull boy syndrome.”

“We have a lot of interesting things to discuss and see. I think you two will be very pleased at our progress. Where do you want to go to dinner?” Marc asked as he scooped up a fist full of peanuts from a bowl on the bar and took a big slug of his margarita.

Teri’s response was immediate, “I’d like to sample the Southwestern cuisine we keep hearing about.”

“You got it. I never get enough,” he said, patting his stomach. “My wife says I have Chest of Drawers disease.”

“What in the world is that?” Teri asked.

“My chest has fallen into my drawers,” he replied laughing.

 

Andrew called Scott Kimberly when he got back to his hotel room that evening. The phone rang several times before Scott answered.

“Scott, this is Andrew Stevenson. You got a minute to talk?”

“What a surprise. Sure, what’s up?”

“Teri and I ate dinner with the guys from STL tonight. They told me they’re still having problems with their data compression technology. I wondered if you’d like to take a leave from Cal Tech and join the project to help us out.”

To Andrew’s surprise, Scott answered immediately. “I’d like nothing better. I’ve been down in the dumps lately thinking about my wife. Since Jeanie passed five years ago, I feel like I’m lost, wandering in the dark. She was the world to me. The nights seem so long without her.”

“Marc told me she died. I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how traumatic it must be losing someone you love so much.”

“Thanks, Andrew. You know, I think it’ll do me good to get away for a while. When do you want me to come?”

“Right away, if possible. I’ll arrange everything for you, including a letter from the Secretary of Science and Technology to the university requesting your assistance.”

“The university will be more than pleased for me to help out. I’m between classes now, so I can be there within two days.”

“Thanks, Scott! See you soon. Your tickets and all arrangements will be made for you by NSTA tomorrow morning.”

Andrew was delighted Scott agreed to join the project. He would be a great asset to the team. In the area of Theoretical Physics, and in particular Relativistic Mechanics, Scott was one of the most accomplished scientists in the world.

Chapter 6

 

Ritz Carltonian

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

The intruder was a tall, slender man dressed in black. He pulled up to the hotel and went through the rear entrance using a key generator especially designed to defeat keyless entry systems. He made his way to the penthouse suite assigned to Teri. Once in, he attached the silencer to his Berretta and hid in a closet.

Teri opened the door and entered her room. Boy, this has been a long day. I think I’ll bypass the mail tonight and hit the sack. There’s plenty of time to read on the way to the site tomorrow. She took a shower, put her PJ’s on, and crawled into bed. She was tired from all the travel and it felt so good. She turned out the light, took a deep breath, and snuggled under the covers.

It wasn’t much noise, but enough to startle Teri, who was still awake. She opened her eyes. A large, black figure hulked over her no more than a foot away. Terrified, she fought to stay calm. The gunman silently lifted his gun and pointed it at her head.

Teri eased a can of mace from under her pillow. There was only one chance to save herself. If she failed — game over. Here goes nothing. She aimed as best she could and sprayed the shooter’s face.

The man let out a scream and began to stumble around, trying to wipe the burning liquid from his eyes.

“You bitch!” he screamed. He fired several shots. One hit the wall and two struck the mattress two inches from her side.

Teri tried to keep quiet so he couldn’t locate her. His body blocked the way to the hallway door. One hope left, the bathroom. Maybe I can keep a door between us. What in the hell is this all about?

She leaped from her bed, hit the assassin with her fist knocking him down, ran into the bathroom, slammed and locked the door behind her, and jumped into the bathtub.

She tried to grab the video phone, but it slipped from her hand and fell on the floor. She eased out of the tub and slid across the floor to stop the loud buzzing sound.

He’s going to locate me! Stupid ass phone!

She reached the receiver and hit a button to shut it up. The tears made it hard to see the numbers. Teri took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. She could hear the shooter cussing and stumbling around outside the door. She slipped back into the bathtub and managed to punch in the hotel security number.

“Security! Please help me,” she whispered. “A man’s in my room. He’s trying to kill me!”

“Are you okay?” the security officer asked. “Are you safe? Is he still there?”

“I’m hiding in the bathtub, and no I’m not hurt. He has a gun. I sprayed him with mace.”

“Stay where you are, ma’am. I’ll be right up.”

The gunman stumbled around, cursing loudly. He shot seven rounds into the bathroom door and ran out of her room.

The bullets lodged in the wall, missing her by inches. Tears in her eyes, she swallowed the sobs. Once she regained her composure enough to speak, she called Andrew.

“Andrew, it’s Teri. Someone broke into my room and tried to kill me.”

“What! Are you all right?”

“Yes, but I’m scared to death. Security’s on the way up. I think the gunman’s gone.”

“I’m coming to your room right now.”

“Please hurry.”

The hotel security officer arrived in quick order and opened the door. “This is McAtee, hotel security, where are you?” he yelled.

“I’m in the bathroom.”

“The intruder’s gone. It’s safe now. You can come out.”

Andrew arrived shortly after McAtee. “I’m Teri’s friend,” he said. He rushed over and took her in his arms to comfort her. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could do something to make you feel better. I can’t believe this.”

“Please hold me for a while. I feel safe in your arms.” She closed her eyes and placed her head on his chest.

Andrew held her close, stroking her hair. After a few moments, she felt secure in his arms and relaxed.

“Miss, I’ve called the police. They should be here directly. Are you okay?”

Teri looked at McAtee. “Yes, just scared to death.”

“I understand. Well, he is gone. I assure you, I’ll make sure he doesn’t come back.”

“Thank you, Mr. McAtee. This is crazy. Why would someone want to kill me?”

The police came five minutes later and McAtee briefed them.

 

“Dr. Martin is there any reason someone would want you dead?”

“No, Lieutenant. I don’t have any enemies I know of, and I don’t carry much cash.”

“I checked our defense department data base,” he said. “It indicates you’re involved in a top secret project for NSTA. Is it possible this could be a motive for someone to want to kill you, thinking you might be carrying classified papers?”

“I suppose, but we never keep classified papers in our hotel rooms. They’re always transferred to the security officer at our destination via classified courier.”

The lieutenant thought for a moment, and remarked, “This was most likely a clumsy robbery attempt.”

Teri responded. “No. This man was trying to kill me. He waited until I went to bed and the lights were out. If it had been a robbery, he would have acted as soon as I entered the room.” Her whole body trembled from fear.

He considered Teri’s remarks. “Mr. McAtee, please seal off this room and let no one enter. I’ll have a team go over it first thing in the morning.”

“Consider it done, Lieutenant.”

“Dr. Martin, I suggest you not stay alone tonight,” he said. “Also, please leave a number where we can reach you. Take this card and call me if you need me.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“She can stay with me,” Andrew volunteered.

 

They moved her to Andrew’s room. McAtee checked around the room and hallway to make sure everything was secure. “I’m going to place an armed guard in the hallway to make sure you’re safe.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Teri said.

“Well, goodnight, folks, and I’m sorry for the trouble. I assure you there will be no more problems of any kind,” he said, as he left.

Andrew looked at Teri, who sat on the sofa, her face drawn and distressed.

“Teri, would you like a cup of tea? It might make you feel a bit better.”

“Thanks, I’d like some.”

“I’m going to delay the review for a couple of days to give you a chance to recuperate,” Andrew said. “This tea hits the spot.”

Teri nodded, brushed back her hair, and set her cup down. “You know, I bet the people from Europe have already left. No, let’s go ahead. It wouldn’t be fair to make people sit around. I’ll be all right,” She gave Andrew an unconvincing smile.

 

The next morning Teri called Bill Mitchel.

“Teri, I can’t believe someone tried to kill you! Are you hurt? What about the police? You must be distraught. I think you should get on the first plane out and come home. I’m very upset about this. I don’t want you to take any more chances.”

“I’m all right. It just scared me to death. The police are investigating. Thanks for asking me to come home, but we’re at a critical juncture on the project and Andrew needs me. I’m shook up, but I’m okay. I want to stay.”

“Well, I insist you and the entire team move to STL’s facility. They have guest quarters and the campus is secure. I’ll call Marc and make arrangements right now.”

“You’ll get no argument from me. We’ll move this morning.”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Call me at home or at the office if you need me. Any time, day, or night. Remember what I said. You have my blessings to return to Washington.”

Teri rested her head on her hand and tried to remain calm. “I will and thanks, Bill.” She thought about how close she came to dying and it made her tremble. She didn’t understand why someone would want to kill her.

Chapter 7

 

STL

Mission Control Center

Wormhole Development Facility

New Mexico

 

The SCDR was the critical milestone for the wormhole project. Several key physicists were on record voicing strong opposition to it, particularly Dr. Romanski. He testified to congress about the danger and unpredictability of the technology and urged them to shut it down. He and his colleague, Dr. Cook, enjoyed high-level political ties and they could cripple the project unless Andrew somehow overcame their objections and secured their support. He knew if he failed to get broad consensus from the review team, particularly from the key participants, the project could get delayed until the Congressional R&D Oversight Subcommittee sorted things out. A delay that could easily cost them their funding and cause the project to be shut down.

 

Marc Anthony started the SCDR with a brief tour of Mission Control, the nerve center of the project. “Ladies and gentlemen, STL designed the MCC with a layout similar to the old NASA type mission control centers, which were proven to be highly effective. You’ll note the room is eighty feet square. As you can see, we have a very large holographic display system located on the West side of the MCC. It’s thirty feet high and twenty feet wide. We can rotate the hologram 360 degrees to allow viewing from any perspective.

“Where do those tunnels lead?” one reviewer asked.

“The tunnels on either side of the room lead out to the starship and wormhole synthesizer systems. Please note the four large screens located on the front wall. They provide information critical to the operation and control of the wormhole system as well as integration of the MCC with the starship. The one on the left is by far our most important information source as to the health and condition of the wormhole. It continuously updates the metrics and status, and helps us control and monitor the wormhole metrics during startup and operation. This is, so to speak, our first line of defense if something goes wrong, and helps us diagnose and fix the problem before it gets out of hand. Are there any questions?”

“Dr. Anthony, are you employing AI-based software agents at this point,” Cook asked.

“Yes. The software agents provide invaluable assistance to help us diagnose and fix problems. Our shutdown protocols are integrated with these agents.”

“Can you demonstrate this?”

“Yes we can and will do so shortly, Dr. Cook. The center screen is, as we call it, the eyes of our facility. It gives us a direct video link to the starship and all of its sensors. The system shares any internal or external view or sensor information supplied by the spacecraft with the MCC.

“Will we get to tour the ship?” one reviewer asked. “I’d love to see it.”

“Yes, that’s on the agenda as the last SCDR event. The star map on the right is our window to the galaxy. The system integrates, over the net, with Earth orbiting telescopes. Its extensive worldwide databases provide any astronomical data or star charts we have. Further, it provides detailed information on any astronomical body in the inventory. We can control these telescopes from our facility and view their outputs real-time. One of the primary functions of this information source is to overlay the wormhole and ship’s position within the star chart during transit through the bridge. This information is also loaded into the holographic display.”

“What are we looking at now, Marc?” Dr. Yanaff, a Russian physicist, asked.

“The astronomical chart you see is in quadrant two and includes Polaris and Cera 323. Similar information can be simultaneously presented on the main holographic display, or we can show an entirely different view if we so choose. For example, we could have a solar system view from the starship displayed in the holographic display and the star charts of interest with the wormhole overlay on the front and side screens.”

Andrew thought the cool feature was the holographic display was the coolest feature in the MCC. It had the capability of displaying annotated simulation results, the wormhole, star charts, or other sensor data from the starship including its electromagnetic and optical telescopes in full color, viewable from 360 degrees.

“Would you like a demonstration of the holographic display?” Marc asked. “We can simulate the wormhole for you.”

The reviewers all smiled and nodded in agreement.

“Kala, activate simulation model Group A,” Marc said.

“Computer, bring up simulation model SW23,” Kala requested. The computer responded immediately.

 

“WORKING. THE MODEL IS LOADED AND RUNNING. DO YOU WANT THE DATA POINTS ANNOTATED?”

 

“Yes please.”

The holographic display began with a three dimensional star map of the space between Earth and Cera 323, a star thirty light-years from Earth. All of a sudden, the star map began to twist and contort bending the space-time continuum and changing the stars positions — folding space and changing the physical dimensions of space itself. The wormhole appeared with its characteristic puckered throat at both ends with the conduit between the Earth and Cera 323 presented as a three dimensional graphical line drawing outlined with a multitude of stars in full color.

 

“THE EINSTEIN-ROSEN BRIDGE IS STABLE. AWAITING FURTHER DIRECTION.”

 

“Computer, superimpose the ship at origin with a 0.6 light speed and include all flight trajectory information,” Kala requested.

 

“starship trajectory and data incorporated. REAL-TIME SIMULATION DATA IS RUNNING.”

 

The spacecraft symbol appeared in the star chart at the front of the facility and in the holographic display: moving through the conduit towards Cera 323. Its speed and coordinates were annotated as the ship transitioned through the wormhole. Andrew enjoyed the demonstration. It was one thing to understand the physics and do the calculations. However, observing the enormous space-time traversed and watching the physical processes occurring within the simulation intrigued him. The holographic display made it seem all too real.

“Thank you, Kala,” Marc said. “Well, let’s continue our tour. As you can see, the main control room is filled with consoles used to monitor and control the system and interface with all outside data and information sources.”

“Dr. Anthony, do you intend startup and control of the wormhole to be operator controlled or automated through the system computers with software agent assistance?” Dr. Jones asked.

“Many of the system startup and control functions are already under computer control and monitored by the software agents. Certain critical operations are still operator controlled, and we plan to continue to do so until we’re confident of the startup methodology and procedures. It gives us more control for now. It’ll be automated later.”

“Makes sense to me. You don’t want to lose control of this system or it could seal your fate,” Romanski said in his normal sour tone.

“No argument here,” Marc replied. “There are five main console stations located in the last row of the facility. The flight director and main control console is located in the middle. This is where we integrate and orchestrate system operations. These stations allow us to design, control, and navigate the wormhole to any point in space, or to communicate and coordinate operations with the starship. As you would expect, our primary man-machine interfaces are voice and holographic display panels combined with virtual reality controls.” Marc scanned the audience then said, “If there are no more questions, let’s reconvene in the main conference room.”

 

Marc didn’t mention it, but they had installed a special holographic display system in the MCC to enable Kala to use her mobile holographic chip. This gave her the capability to have a presence and move freely with in the MCC and to interact with the team in the control room. As an accepted member of the team, they frequently went to her for advice and analysis of very difficult problems. Cognizant of everything taking place, she elected to stay in the background and nose around to try to find some clue about Romanski’s agenda.

 

“Dr. Forrester, I’m concerned about the stability of the wormhole.” Romanski said. “It seems to me you people are on thin ice here. The last project suffered a major failure and killed twenty-three world-class scientists. I do not intend to vote yes unless you can convince us you have solved the problems that doomed the first project. You are creating a monster, and if you’re not careful it will destroy all of you.”

I wondered how long it would take Romanski to broach the subject, Andrew thought.

“I understand, Dr. Romanski,” Daniel replied. “Our simulations indicate we can control and maintain the wormhole in a stable state. Accommodating the data flow requirements between the software feedback control loops is critical to system stability. The good thing is we think our new compression algorithms will give us the margin we need to prevent any stability issue from occurring.”

“Excuse me, Daniel,” Andrew said. “Doctor, we’ve brought Dr. Scott Kimberly in from Cal Tech. He has a new algorithm we believe will enhance our data compression technology and minimize any bandwidth issue.”

“Well … what if the system becomes unstable? Do you have a protocol to control it?” Dr. Cook inquired. He was also a powerful and severe critic of the project, and Romanski’s good friend.

“We’ve implemented AI agent based shutdown and corrective action protocols to assist us if the system metrics start to deviate,” Andrew replied. “These protocols were one of the first system control features we implemented. The first project didn’t use them. We plan to review all of this with you tomorrow, and we’ll share all of the data flow calculations and simulation runs.”

“What if the protocols fail?” Cook asked. “Have they been tested?”

“We’ve tested every possible contingency these protocols can address, and the built-in controls give us a good degree of safety. I assure you we will address it in detail tomorrow as shown on your agenda,” Andrew said.

Seems to me both Cook and Romanski are going out of their way to give us a hard time, Andrew thought. I’m about tired of their bullshit. What is their problem? Something’s going on I don’t understand. Maybe Teri has some insight.

Teri edged close to Andrew. “Those guys are going to be tough to convince. They seem so negative about everything. I wonder why?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping you had some ideas. Romanski’s a hard person to read. Bill told me he and Cook are both dead set against us going forward. He didn’t know why. We need to see what we can find out from the other reviewers over the next few days. Maybe they’ll hear something from those two and give us a clue as to their intentions. I have a feeling the next four days are going to be trying, to say the least.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. I have a pretty good rapport with quite a few of members of the review team,” Teri said. “So far no one has said anything.”

Andrew nodded at Daniel and Marc. Daniel smiled, and he in turn sent a code from his Qtab. Kala discretely entered the information. Warning claxons sounded loudly and the red alert lights begin flashing at a five-second rate. The sound was almost deafening and everyone looked out at the holographic display and saw the wormhole beginning to fluctuate and waiver. The computer announced:

 

“WORMHOLE INSTABILITY EMINENT. INITIATE SYSTEM SHUT DOWN IMMEDIATELY. ALL UNNECESSARY PERSONNEL MUST VACATE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY.”

 

People began to move towards the back of the room. Some looking quite concerned. The computer came back on.

 

“INITIATE SHUTDOWN PROTOCOL THIRTY-ONE.”

 

Kala entered P31 and the simulation shut down within ten seconds. The wormhole display turned off, and the claxons and warning lights shut down.

 

“SYSTEM SHUTDOWN ACCOMPLISHED.”

 

Everyone laughed as they headed back to their seats, shaking their heads and feeling foolish about reacting to a simulation.

“Dr. Forrester, I appreciate levity as well as anyone, but I really don’t want to attend your memorial service someday,” Romanski said. “However, you made your point.” He gave Daniel a small grin, looked over at Andrew, and then checked his agenda.

Man, he’s hard to read. If I don’t get ulcers before this is over, it’ll be a miracle. This whole thing is really getting on my nerves. It shouldn’t be this hard. Andrew thought.

“Can you control the size of the wormhole?” Dr. Barnes, from MIT asked. “What about communications? Even at the speed of light, it takes electromagnetic signals over four years to travel from our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, to Earth.”

“The wormhole can accommodate spacecraft travel,” Daniel replied. “Communications through the wormhole will be possible in almost real-time, so we can always be in contact with mission control.”

 

The review team spent the next four days in heated discussions trying to resolve strong differences of opinion in virtually every aspect of the design. Romanski and Cook did not make things any easier. Several times people blew up at Romanski, and he and Cook walked out of the meeting. Andrew and Teri convinced them the project needed their participation, and after cooling off, they returned. As the days rolled on, everyone’s stress levels went up.

At the end of the fourth day, Andrew sat at the front table deep in thought about the meetings. Having resolved virtually all of the issues, the majority of the reviewers now supported the project. Normally, this would have been satisfactory, but Romanski and Cook still abstained. Without their vote of approval, the project would not go forward.

Those two have not given me a single clue about their intentions. Who knows what they plan to do when they get back to Washington. They could sure cause us problems. Nothing they might do would surprise me now. Maybe Scott can get me reinstated at Tech.

He walked back to see Kala. “What’s your take on these two guys? They seem intent on shutting us down.”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m still collating facts and other things I’ve heard and seen. My preliminary thoughts are they don’t have sufficient rationale to shut us down or delay the project. I think Romanski’s attitude is purely emotional. It doesn’t make sense for a scientist to react this way. Obviously, from what I’ve observed, Cook will go along with whatever he says. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to put their cards on the table.”

“I’m sure your right. It’s making me a nervous wreck.”

Romanski and Cook approached Andrew. “We want to talk to you in private,” Romanski said, maintaining his normal stoic look. Cook had a blank but serious look about him.

Oh, boy, here it comes, he thought. “Certainly, let’s go into the small conference room. We can have a coffee and talk.” Andrew’s heart pounded, and his breathing became shallow and rapid as he walked ahead of them to the conference room. Man, these people really know how to dramatize things, he thought. He wondered what they were going to say. All of the cards were on the table and they were in the driver’s seat. Their silence drove his anxiety even higher. Andrew closed the door after they entered the room to give them the privacy they wanted.

Romanski took a drink of his coffee and looked down at the cup as if he were studying the processes behind the steam rising from the dark liquid. His deep frown gave the impression he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. After a few moments, he looked up, and said, “We’ve opposed this project from the beginning. I guess I owe you the courtesy of an explanation.” He paused for a moment as if he were recalling a painful incident. “Several of my very best friends were killed in the original project. Some were my classmates in graduate school. I swore, if I ever had a say, I would not let anyone else die at the hands of this monster. I’m still very cynical, and frankly, my gut says we need to shut you down before others die. I’m worried history is going to repeat itself. I honestly do not want to see any of you killed.”

Andrew nervously awaited Romanski’s next revelation. He could feel his heart racing. Cook, normally gregarious, was not saying a word, and his stoic demeanor bothered him.

“This is a very difficult decision for us,” Romanski said. “However, Gerald and I are going to vote yes on your project. Despite our deep concerns, we’re convinced the wormhole design appears solid, and you’ve demonstrated you have a handle on the issues. To vote no based on prejudice or emotion would be unfair and unethical.”

“I appreciate your support.” Andrew was completely shocked; he wasn’t sure how to respond. He thought these two were going to torpedo the project. Now, surprisingly, they had done a complete turnabout. Before he could say anything, Cook addressed him.

“We both serve as consultants to the Congressional R&D Oversight Subcommittee, so we’ll be following your progress closely. We do hope you’re successful. This technology can mean a lot to the people of Earth. I sincerely wish you the best of luck.” Cook gave him a huge smile.

Andrew felt like jumping out of his chair and yelling. He was certain, right up to a few moments before; he would be calling Mitchel to tell him the bad news. He couldn’t believe his ears. He fought hard to regain his composure, and simply said, “Thank you, gentlemen. You don’t know how much I appreciate your support. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure this project is safe.” Andrew smiled and shook both men’s hands. It felt good to be over this final hurdle so they could move on. Romanski and Cook were tough nuts to crack. I didn’t think we would get their support. — what a relief! Andrew sighed a breath of relief as he watched the two men walk out of the conferenced room.

Getting through the review had cost Andrew several sleepless nights. He felt tired and wrung out. I can’t believe they bought in. Well, we’re not home yet. We have a long way to go, and they’ll be watching every move we make. He leaned back in his chair to relax and collect his thoughts. He was still perplexed at the turn of events. He got up and went over to the coffee bar to see Teri. “I’ve got something to tell you. Please join Kala and me in the back.”

“Okay. I need to fill my coffee cup first.” She got her coffee and a sweet roll and walked over to them. “What’s up? Hi, Kala.”

“Romanski and Cook told me they were supporting the project.”

Teri almost dropped her cup. “I can’t believe it! I thought they were going to shut us down.” She let out a low “yeah,” shook her fist and smiled broadly. “I’m so excited I almost wet myself,” she said, chuckling.”

Andrew let out a huge belly laugh. Teri can be so funny at times, he thought.

“What happened to change their minds? Did you ever find out why they were so negative?” she asked as she brushed back her hair and took a sip of her coffee.

“Romanski told me several of his best friends were killed in the catastrophe with the first wormhole project. I’m convinced he thought the technology was uncontrollable. He said he didn’t want to see anyone else die. They didn’t offer any real explanation, except they felt like we had control of the issues responsible for causing the disaster on the first project.”

“Now I understand where he’s coming from,” she said. “I’ve heard he’s a tough guy to deal with, but always fair.”

“I’m happy to see they were able to put their emotions aside and use logic. Congratulations guys. Guess we can move on out now. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited,” Kala said. “I can’t wait to turn the wormhole on.”

Thinking about moving ahead on the project excited Andrew, but it also made him quite pensive. The disaster on the first project still nagged him. As careful as they had been, he worried they might have overlooked something. If the monster got out of control, as it did before, it could kill his entire team — a thought that would bother him for some time.

 

Marc addressed the reviewers. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve completed all presentations and side meetings of our scheduled program. Please note there will be additional facility and spacecraft tours tomorrow. I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Stevenson for his summary and wrap up.”

“Thanks, Marc,” Andrew replied. “Once we get the wormhole system up, and running in a predictable and reliable manner, we plan to conduct several test flights. The first will be two-way robotic spacecraft flights. If this goes as planned, the next phase will be a manned flight to launch a deep space telescope, Outpost, and a communications satellite in a stationary orbit near Proxima Centauri. Outpost is a new telescope designed for deep space operations by Russian Physicist, Dr. Ivan Podoski, of the International Astronomical Agency.” He paused briefly and asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”

“Excuse me, Dr. Stevenson, but how will you make sure the systems are operating to spec?”

“Good question, Dr. Uralla. We’ll use the ship’s sensors and Outpost to collect data and relay the information to Earth via the communications satellite. When this is finished, MCC, will take over, exercise Outpost, and validate the final system operational status via the wormhole.”

“You mentioned a third test flight phase,” Romanski said.

“Yes. The last test flight will be to investigate a young solar system near Polaris called Tango 555 whose planetary configuration may include one similar to Earth.”

“Has a specific starship been designated by the ISA to support your space-borne operations?” Cook asked.

“Yes, they’ve agreed to loan us the Starship Orion. She’s coming out of three years of overhaul and upgrade and will have the latest state-of-the-art systems and sensors. The ship is circular, three hundred meters in diameter, and has twenty-two decks. She has a crew of 225 and room for an additional 20 passengers. At full reaction power, she can approach 0.8 light speed. Kala, patch in the bridge of the Orion and display it on the front screen, please.”

The captain’s chair was in the middle of the bridge. The pilot’s console was located directly in front of him, both facing the ship’s main display screen and two utility screens that covered most of the front area. All other stations such as navigation, communications, sensors control, weapons, and the science console were on the same level and located around the periphery of the bridge.

“Captain John Starling will be the mission commander. He and his pilot, Commander Terrence “Knuckles” Malone, are perhaps two of the most experienced astronauts in the International Space Agency (ISA.) You’ll meet them both on the tour tomorrow. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t mind saying this is a review I’ll never forget. We appreciate your support, and thank you for coming.”

Marc was all smiles as he walked up to Andrew. “What time do you guys want to meet at Julio’s to celebrate our successful SCDR?”

“See you at seven,” Andrew said, as he left for his office. Andrew called Mitchel to share the good news and to voice a concern. “Hi, Bill, good news. Romanski and Cook signed off on the program. Romanski said he thought we had a handle on the problems that caused the disaster on the first wormhole project. It turns out several of his closest friends were killed on that project and didn’t want to see anyone else die. He still thinks the technology is too unpredictable and dangerous, but they approved the go ahead. However, I do have an issue I want to discuss with you.”

“Great news, Andrew. Congratulations. What’s the problem?”

“System stability. STL has a good safety margin in their compression algorithms, but I’d like a bit more.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Scott Kimberly has an approach to upgrade our compression algorithms to give us a wider margin of safety. Kala and I reviewed his calculations and performed a detailed Entropy analysis. We think he has an excellent chance to make it work even though it may delay us a couple of weeks. I really want some extra margin, even if it means a little delay. Marc agrees with our decision.”

“A little more insurance is fine with me. By the way, I think your recommendation to keep Lars Johansen on site is a good idea. Lars is an expert at software algorithms, and eager to relocate to STL.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“How’s Teri holding up? I asked her to come back to Washington, but she refused to leave the project. She’s a very brave woman, but I am worried about her.”

“I think she’s going to be fine. The shooter scared her half to death. I was impressed she didn’t let it get the best of her or interfere with her job in any way.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less of Teri. I need you two at NSTA right away. Secretary Robinette wants to see us about some very serious issues. I’ll brief you when you get here. Tell everyone I said congratulations on the SCDR.”

“Thanks, I will. See you day after tomorrow.” I’m very curious to find out what the secretary wants to talk about, Andrew thought.

Chapter 8

 

Julio’s Restaurant

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

The restaurant featured a charming and rustic Southwestern motif. Marc had chosen the restaurant not only for its reputation for great food, but it also had a holographic system capability so Kala could join the fun. After a couple of rounds of margaritas, everyone felt a bit loose and the conversation was light and jovial. Daniel and Andrew were talking about their college days and Dr. Scott Kimberly, of course, was the focal point. Scott had been their major professor and thesis advisor at Cal Tech.

Kimberly loved to tell the story of his punishment of Andrew after his oral exams. “We kicked Andrew out of the exam two hours before it was over and let him sit in the hall until the three hours were up. Just for effect, I walked very slowly to where Andrew sat on the hallway floor. It was my last chance to torture him, so I just stared at him for a few moments with a sad look on my face. When I figured he had suffered enough, I told him the good news.” He let out a big belly laugh.

“It wasn’t funny, Scott. Making me wait, in misery, while you guys talked about your golf game and settled your bets was nothing but grad student abuse,” Andrew replied.

“Hey, it’s a prof’s prerogative.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to enjoy it so much.”

“Of course I did,” he said grinning broadly.

Andrew liked Scott the first time he met him at Cal Tech. The professor was a nice looking middle-aged man, with short brown hair and hazel eyes. He wore wire framed glasses and a well-trimmed moustache. Scott was about six feet tall and in good shape for his age. He was an avid golfer and a world-class physicist. His coursework was extremely difficult but Scott was an outstanding teacher and his classroom was always full. Andrew felt like he learned more about mathematics in Scott’s classes than he ever did in his other math courses.

 

Andrew was curious about Lars. Outside of work, he didn’t know much about him. He had a reputation for being an affable person who liked to tell jokes, laughed a lot and fun loving. His technical reputation preceded him.

“Lars, you seem to have a Swedish accent,” Andrew said.

“I was born in Sweden and my parents still live there. I went to college at MIT and got my PhD in physics. I did my thesis on a new string theory concept.”

“Do you have a family?”

“No. My partners have all been men.”

Well, at least he’s honest. I never knew Lars was gay. To each his own. “So what do you do for fun?” Andrew asked, rocking back in his chair.

Lars smiled, took a drink of his margarita, and responded. “I’ve spent vacation time sailing around the world on my 60 foot sailboat, the Solar Wind. I spent two years on my last trip. I finally decided it was time to settle somewhere so I hired on with NSTA, got my green card and here I am.”

“We’re pleased to have you on the team,” Marc said.

“Thank you, Marc. I detect a slight British accent in your speech.”

“It’s hard to get rid of,” he said. “I grew up in Liverpool and went to Oxford. After I got my masters, I received a scholarship to MIT where I received my PhD in Quantum Physics. Went to work for STL and here I am. In fact, my first assignment was working for Andrew’s dad on his project to develop a new starship anti-matter propulsion system. Tom really helped me launch my career and taught me a lot about managing programs. Great guy.”

 

The music started and Kala wanted to dance. “Andrew, let’s dance. This is my favorite dance tune.”

“Okay.”

After three straight dances, Andrew looked at Kala and said, “Girl, I’m bushed. Let’s sit down.”

Kala sat next to Teri. “Why don’t you ask Andrew to dance? It’s a lot of fun.”

“I’d like to but we have that departmental protocol about fraternization. Someone might take it the wrong way. Where did you learn to dance like that? You’re very good.”

“My friend Joey at Cal Tech taught me.”

“Was he your boyfriend?” Teri teased.

“No we were just good friends, although I would have liked to have made out with him. I’ve never kissed a man, you know. It must be nice and fun. All the girls at Tech seemed to be doing it —among other things if you know what I mean?”

“I do.”

A beautiful young Hispanic woman approached the table and walked up to Daniel. Three buttons were open on her blouse showing a lot of interesting cleavage. Before he could say anything, she gave him a sexy grin. “Hey bubba, how about we make the town tonight?”

Daniel almost spilled his drink googling her. He recovered nicely. “Why don’t you join us for starters?” He rose and pulled a chair out for her. “Please sit down.”

“Why not? I don’t have anything better to do — right now anyway,” she said.

Daniel glanced at Andrew with a confused look on his face. It was obvious Daniel didn’t remember her.

Embarrassed by his mental block, Daniel bought think time by flagging the server. “A frozen margarita for my friend … and bring some more chips and salsa, please. I hope you like margaritas,” he said to her.

“Thank you. I was going to buy you one.” She continued smiling at him with a cat-that-just-ate-the-canary look.

Daniel frowned, and red-faced, he came clean. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sure I know you, but I can’t quite pin down the time and place.”

“I’ll help you. We shared a drink at Joe’s pub across from Cal Tech a few years back. My name is Michelle Duvey.” She placed her index finger on her cheek and cocked her head to show her amusement. Her eyes lit up as she stared at Daniel.

Daniel thought a moment, and pointed his finger at her with a big grin. “I remember! You had just graduated and were going back to teach at the University of Mexico. What are you doing here?” He was so excited.

“Hey, Michelle, Andrew Stevenson, remember me? Everyone, please meet Dr. Michelle Duvey.”

Michelle gave Andrew a flirtatious look and replied in a way only she could, “Andrew … mi novio, you may have shaved your beard off and shortened your hair, but how could I ever forget someone as sexy and handsome as you?”

Andrew blushed. This woman put the “s” in sexy. I can sure understand why Daniel was so infatuated with her. I don’t blame him. Phew, what a sexpot. Brilliant too. I wouldn’t mind having a little of that myself.

Michelle took another drink of her margarita. “To answer your question, I was teaching material science at the University of Mexico. About four weeks ago, I received a call from STL asking me to join the project. They want me to oversee the implementation of active nanotechnology electromagnetic and nuclear particle shielding on the spacecraft. They fast tracked a green card for me, so I came out to the desert yesterday. Hey, the offer was good, so here I am.”

“I apologize for the mental vapor lock. Too many margaritas, I guess. Welcome to the project. I’m delighted you’re here. The shielding issue has been a real problem for us. We can really use your help.” Daniel was excited and the look on his face showed it.

“Thank you, Daniel. I think I’m going to like being on your team.”

“I really enjoyed our brief meeting back at Tech. I thought I’d never see you again. Maybe now we’ll have the time to become better acquainted … if you’d like, maybe we could have dinner at the restaurant on top of Sandia. It’s a lot of fun watching the paragliders jump off the top of the mountain. They’re a lot braver than I am. I wouldn’t jump off there for anything.”

Michelle sampled a chip with a touch of salsa, and took a drink of her margarita. She paused for a moment and winked at him. “Sounds like a lot of fun. I’ve read articles about them, so yeah; I think it would be a blast.”

A little later, Daniel sat down by Andrew. He leaned close and whispered. “Are you responsible for her being here?”

Andrew grinned and said, “Yes.”

“You know, I’ve dated a lot of very nice women, but none excites me the way she does. I like her aggressive and flirtatious personality. I never thought I’d see her again. I liked her the first time I laid eyes on her. She’s gorgeous. I’ve always been disappointed I met her on her last night at Tech. I would have loved the opportunity to get to know her better. I feel like a jerk for not recognizing Michelle.”

“I’ve always known how you felt about her, and I don’t blame you. She is quite a woman. I wanted her on the project earlier, but I had to wait until the Orion came to justify it. She’s one of the world’s leading experts in nanotechnology. We really need her expertise to make sure the spacecraft shielding protects our crew.”

“I agree,” Daniel said. “I’d like to drive back with her tonight if she’s amenable.”

“Thought you might,” Andrew said, grinning broadly.

 

A gorgeous, young, brown-haired woman walked over to the table and sat next to Andrew. She wore no bra and her large breasts were busting out of her blouse. Her hot pants didn’t hide much either.

“Andrew, remember me? Jamie Dunn. How are you?”

He certainly did remember her. He had dated her at tech. She was one of the hottest women he had ever known. The last time they partied, she almost tore his pants off trying to get at him. It excited him to see her again. “I’m good. What are you doing here?”

“I’m an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of New Mexico. Would you like to dance?”

“Sure,” Andrew replied.

She put her arm around him and whispered in his ear. He shook his head affirmatively.

 

Teri glared at Jamie as the two of them walked to the dance floor. If her eyes were lasers, they would have burned holes through Jamie’s back. She silently fumed as she watched Jamie crawl all over Andrew while they were dancing. She hadn’t realized how much she liked him, until this moment. Her jealousy boiled over and she tried hard to conceal her feelings. She certainly did not want to make a scene and embarrass herself. They spent a long time on the dance floor and Teri got madder by the minute. Later, when Jamie and Andrew walked out of the restaurant, Andrew put his hand in Jamie’s butt pocket. Jamie seemed to be enjoying it, but Teri was livid. I don’t know why I’m so jealous, I have no claim on Andrew, but that bitch pisses me off. What a tramp! I’d like to pull her hair out. I think she would have screwed him on the dance floor if she could have figured out how to do it. She acts like she’s in heat! Talk about a slut. Bitch!

 

Kala suspected that Teri was sweet on Andrew and she hoped they would get together someday. She felt like they were ideally suited for each other. She remembered Jamie from Cal Tech. She and Andrew had been a hot item and she knew Andrew had been very attracted to her. She thought it would be interesting to see how things worked out. She could tell Teri was jealous of Jamie. I wonder what’s going on in her mind. I bet she is fuming.

 

Everyone enjoyed the drive back, except Teri. True to form, Lars couldn’t help but start the jokes.

“Spare me please!” Teri said. “You can be so crude. Why don’t you can it?”

Lars laughed as he told an even raunchier joke.

“You’re really sick,” she said. “I don’t even think you’re funny!”

Everyone started laughing. She realized they were laughing at her and it pissed her off even more. “You know Lars, you flap your jaws so much it’s a wonder your gums don’t bleed.”

Lars blew her a kiss. Teri switched her thoughts to Andrew and Jamie again. There was no reason for her to be jealous. Andrew and she weren’t dating, but the thought of Andrew being with Jamie upset her. I can’t fault her taste. Andrew is a very good-looking guy. I don’t know why, but it makes me furious every time I think about her being in bed with him.

 

Andrew and Jamie were in the back seat of his STV corvette and he had tried to get her hot pants off for twenty minutes. The small back seat made it difficult to maneuver, and the pants were so tight he struggled to get them down. He smiled as the stubborn shorts gave up and came off. He enjoyed the view and was having fun playing with her womanly charms when something diverted his attention. He stopped and looked out the window.

“Baby,” she cried out. “What’s wrong? I want you inside me.”

“Jamie … wait. Look out the window, quick!”

A large circular UFO hovered over the STL facility. It looked identical to the one he had seen over Washington, DC, a few years back. “Jack! Stop the STV! I see a UFO. Look Jamie!”

“Are you serious?”

Jack, the STV computer, acknowledged and pulled the vehicle to the shoulder. The STV sat down on its wheels and the doors opened. Andrew and Jamie ,with great effort, pulled their pants on, piled out and stood fascinated by the large portentous looking craft hovering silently no more than two hundred feet above the STL facility.

“Can you believe this?” Andrew exclaimed. “I saw one over D.C. when I first got to NSTA. I wonder if STL has filed any reports about UFO’s around the project. I hope they don’t attack the facility.”

“I thought UFO’s were a myth,” she exclaimed. “All my life I’ve wanted to see one and here it is. Holy shit!”

After a few minutes, the craft took off at an amazing speed and was out of sight in seconds.

“Did you see how fast it took off? I can’t believe what we just saw,” Jamie said. She wrapped her arms around him and French kissed him. As they stood there, Andrew rubbed her buttocks and thought about the UFO as she nibbled on his neck. What do they want and why are they snooping around our facility? Where are they from? Wonder if they’re hostile? I need to talk to Mitchel about this. All we need is an alien attack. There’s something suspicious going on, and I don’t like the looks of it. I wonder if they were responsible for the failure on the first project.

“Andrew, honey, we have some unfinished business. Let’s get home. I can’t wait to get you in bed.”

He looked at her and laughed. “I’m ready,” he said.

She rubbed the crotch of his pants, squeezing it lovingly.”

“Time to go,” he said.

They got back in the car and Jamie unzipped his pants. He laid his head back, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the ride back to his quarters.

 

Chapter 9

 

NSTA

Washington, D.C.

 

Two days ago, I thought I’d be writing a post mortem for this project — instead I’m sending out the SCDR approval notice. Go figure. Romanski and Cook sure know how to keep things on edge. I’ll never forget this one review. Sure glad Jamie’s in Albuquerque, Andrew thought. He shook his head in disbelief and let out a big sigh as Bill Mitchel rang in. “Andrew, welcome back, my boy. Please come down to my office. We need to talk about some things.”

“Be right there.” I bet this has to do with the Robinette meeting. Well, it’ll give me a chance to talk to him about those UFOs. I’m still worried about the one Jamie and I saw hovering over the MCC building. I bet Bill knows something he hasn’t shared with me. I wonder what it is.

 

Bill was on the video link with the U.S. Secretary of Science and Technology when Andrew walked into his office.

“Okay, Dr. Robinette. Andrew and I will see you this afternoon.” Bill hung up, stood, and extended his hand. “Andrew, it’s good to see you. I’m anxious to hear about the review. Please sit down. I see you have coffee. I could use some before we get too involved. Feel a bit drowsy today. The wife and I stayed up late last night watching our daughter’s vacation videos.” Bill poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Where did she go?” Andrew asked.

Bill sat down and took a sip. “Sure is good stuff. She and her family spent a week in an underwater habitat just off the California coast, scuba diving. The habitat was sixty feet below the surface and has special, transparent walls. They were able to watch the ocean life and photograph everything from within the habitat. The really exciting footage was an hour and a half fight between a twenty-foot great white shark and a giant squid.”

“Who won?” Andrew asked.

“Guess they fought to a draw. The shark bit one of the squid’s tentacles off and escaped.”

“Sounds like a great vacation. It’s always been on my short list of dive trips.” Andrew took a drink of his coffee and made a mental note to reserve the place for his next dive vacation.

Bill fiddled with his papers, looked up, and gave Andrew an “oh-crap” look. “We’re getting a lot of pushback from some of the guys on the hill. They’re questioning the efficacy of our project. They think the money might be better spent on domestic programs to help them get reelected.” Bill took a deep breath, stirred his coffee for the second time, and continued. “This situation needs careful management, or we could lose our funding line items next year.”

“I understand. I assure you I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen. What’s the deal with Robinette?”

“I’m not completely sure. We’ll find out this afternoon. I think it has to do with project security and some disturbing government intelligence reports.”

“Intelligence and security? Sounds pretty serious.” Andrew rubbed his chin and wondered what was going on.

“What about the SCDR? Your report indicated it went very well.”

“Uh … it turned out okay. I will say, I didn’t think we were going to get approval. Romanski and Cook kept the entire meeting off balance. I thought for sure they were going to shut us down right up to the last day. I didn’t sleep the last two nights. I don’t think anyone has ever wound me up so tight. I’m planning to give STL the approval and go ahead, if you agree. We still have some technical issues, but I think they can be easily resolved.”

“The important thing is they signed off on it. You and Teri did a great job. Your people obviously addressed all of their concerns. I understand Romanski even had a bit of a warm fuzzy when he left. I know Romanski, and he rarely has a bit of warm anything.”

“I sent you the detailed report, so let me know if there’s anything we need to discuss further,” Andrew said. “I’m glad this review is behind us. I feel like a gorilla has hopped off my back.”

Bill smiled and nodded his understanding. “I want you, Teri, Kala, and all of the other team members to relocate to the STL facility as soon as possible. We need you there full time to oversee things. Besides, it’ll be safer. I don’t want any more incidents like the one in Albuquerque. The STL facility is secure, and I’ll sleep better knowing everyone is safe.”

“When do you want us to go?”

“As soon as you can make the arrangements. Marc is very comfortable having you collocated at the site, and has agreed to house your team at the STL guest facilities.”

“I can be ready in a few days. What about my apartment?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll pick up the rent and other expenses until you finish up in the desert. Besides, it’ll give you a place to crash when you come in for meetings.”

Bill finished his coffee, dug into his desk drawer, and found the prize he was looking for — a bag of potato chips. “Want some?” he asked.

“Thanks, they’re my favorite.” They were tasty and helped ease the hunger he felt. He enjoyed the salty flavor. There were a few other things pressing on Andrew’s mind. While munching his potato chips, he placed his forearm on Bill’s desk and leaned towards him.

“I told you about the UFO sighting at the STL facility. Well, I also saw one when I first moved to D.C. What’s going on? Why do I keep seeing these things where they shouldn’t be? Why doesn’t the Air Force respond to them?” He leaned back in his chair and placed his chin on his palm with the index finger pointing across his mouth to emphasize his attention.

Bill grinned and pulled out a bag of jellybeans. He gave some to Andrew, and threw a couple in his own mouth. “You know, I love jellybeans, particularly the black ones,” he said. “You’re going to find out this afternoon, so I might as well tell you. We’ve been in contact with a race of highly advanced aliens for several years. Our first meeting with them was at Camp David about the time you came here to join us.”

Andrew leaned towards Bill and blurted out, “I knew I wasn’t imagining things. I saw them lift off. I hesitated to say anything. People tend to make fun of anyone making UFO reports. What do we know about them? Why are they here?”

Bill popped a couple more jellybeans in his mouth, took a deep breath, chomped on them, and leaned back in his chair as he savored the flavor. “They’re from a planet called Kandar. It’s about twenty-five light-years from Earth.” Bill paused and took a drink of coffee to wash the sugar down.

Andrew couldn’t help but think about the Air Force report, “Project Blue Book,” his dad told him about one night years ago when they were looking at the stars and debating whether alien life existed. The author, a Dr. Condon, wrote that ‘a civilization’s life expectancy was probably limited to fifty thousand years. Given this, the probability of two civilizations existing at the same time, and living close enough to visit each other was almost zero.’ With the technology we had in those times, his conclusions were probably correct. Bet these guys have wormhole technology.

“Their sun is about the same size as ours, and Kandar occupies about the same orbital position around their sun as we do. I can tell you their technology is far more advanced than ours,” Bill said.

Andrew shook his head. “What do they look like?”

“If you saw one on the street, you’d hardly give them a second look.”

“What do they want with us? We have little to offer them. Our knowledge base and technology must be terribly elementary compared to theirs.” His hunched shoulders, and palms up emphasized his curiosity.

Bill chuckled lightly. “Quite true. They told us they’ve been exploring the galaxy for hundreds of years. The interesting point is we’re the only other planet they’ve found with a technologically advanced civilization. Some worlds they’ve explored have extremely dangerous animal life. When they have discovered humanoid life forms, they’re primitive and hostile. Their government seems anxious to make friends with the only other intelligent and civilized neighbor they’ve found in the galaxy … even if we are technologically challenged compared to them.”

Andrew sat with his fingers folded and lightly rubbed the palms of his hands together, studying Bill’s face, trying to come to grips with the realization aliens really did exist. “If their technology’s as advanced as you say, it should be easy for them to attack us and take over.”

Bill nodded in agreement, as he finished his jellybeans. “True, but we’ve already had a group of sociologists visit them. They reported no signs of the Kandarians being militaristic or warlike. Kandar has no military or armed police forces and their nations live in peace. Everyone is well educated, their medicine highly advanced and all of their people live quite comfortably in democratic type republics. There’s no poverty or hunger on Kandar. Like Hispanics, they have a family-based culture and maintain strong family ties throughout their lives. If there is a natural disaster of any kind, they pitch in to help their neighbors.”

“If they’re hundreds of years ahead of us, it would seem to me they may have exhausted their natural resources. If so, they may want ours,” Andrew reasoned.

“They’ve been mining minerals from barren planets for several hundred years and have no need or interest in Earth’s resources. Their mining technology is beyond belief.”

“Well, it looks like we have a new neighbor and, pardon the cliché; but the question of whether life exists elsewhere has been answered. I do have another question, though. I know it’s silly, but what was the deal on Area 51 and the Roswell incident back in the 1950s I read so much about when I was a kid?”

Bill grinned. “I wondered how long it would take you to get around to that subject. Actually, the Kandarians did have a ship crash in New Mexico back in the fifties. Nothing but a few small pieces of metal survived.”

“What happened to their ship?”

“They told us the propulsion system suffered a freak break in a dark matter containment vessel and caused the ship to explode. It happened so fast the crew was helpless to do anything. They later resolved the problem and corrected it. Area 51 used to be a secret U.S. Air Force test facility. Do you have any more questions?”

“Dark matter propulsion systems? Absolutely amazing technology. We’re just now starting to do research on it. What about Project Blue Book?”

Bill laughed, pulled out a new bag of jellybeans, and popped a couple in his mouth. “The Air Force set the project up to investigate and discredit reports of UFO sightings. The UFO’s were really top secret aircraft the government was testing … nothing more.”

The disclosures disappointed Andrew. As a kid, he thought the Army Air Force found little green men at the crash site and used Area 51 to dissect them.

“What time are we on to meet with the Secretary?”

“Two-thirty. Let’s ride over together. By the way, I’ll meet with Teri and give her the scoop on the upcoming move. I need some face time with her anyway.”

Chapter 10

 

Secretary of R&D’s Office

The Pentagon

Washington, D.C.

 

The Pentagon proved to be the most confusing building Andrew could imagine. They walked for twenty minutes around the circular corridors, through the spokes, and finally found the Secretary’s office complex. I wonder how many levels below the surface this building has. I’d sure hate to get lost in here. Might never find my way out, Andrew thought with some amusement.

The Secretary noticed them as they entered his outer office. Before his admin assistant could speak, he put his work down and stood. “Gentlemen, come in. We have a lot to discuss.”

The Secretary, and his office, impressed Andrew. A U.S. flag stood at the left rear of his desk. Degrees, awards and pictures of him with the president, senators and other high-ranking government officials, covered the rear wall behind his desk. His clean-shaven face and short brown hair, graying at the temples, matched his soft, brown friendly eyes. He was well groomed and meticulous about his clothing. The overall ensemble gave him a distinguished, executive appearance.

The Secretary checked his notes before he spoke. “I fully support your project. I’m sure you know there are those in Congress who think the money we’re spending could be better spent elsewhere … especially on domestic issues. We’re fortunate to have the support of some powerful congressional representatives and senators. Otherwise, we would most likely lose our funding lines to some giveaway program. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you, it will be important to keep this project on track and show progress if we want to keep it funded. Having said that, where do we stand on your status?”

“Andrew’s team has completed their SCDR. Andrew, give us a quick briefing.”

“Be glad to. Well, Mr. Secretary—”

“Call me Felix,” the Secretary interrupted.

Andrew smiled. “Thank you, sir … uh, Felix. We’ve completed the implementation and build stage of both the mission control center and the wormhole launch port. We’re now focused on the electromagnetic and nuclear particle shielding for the starship. Most of the relativistic wormhole design and field and matter synthesizer software’s in place, but it’s not tested yet. The wormhole navigation software is also close to completion. It needs a few modifications.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready to run a beta test?” Felix asked.

Andrew thought for a moment and realized the Congress and the Joint Chiefs would get the information. “I believe we’ll be ready in about three months.”

“Very good. Thanks for the update. I have a couple of other issues we need to discuss.”

Well, guess I’ll find out what this meeting’s really about. This is going to be interesting, Andrew thought. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.

“We’ve been getting Intel from our agents in the Middle East indicating we have two radical and competing groups fighting each other for leadership of the new progressive Islamic radical movement. Their goal, as we understand it, is to reestablish the Ottoman Empire. Only they’re far more aggressive than their predecessors, and this time they want to extend the empire over the entire world.” The Secretary took a sip of his coffee and continued. “The most powerful group is the Sacred Warriors of God (SWG) headquartered in Beirut and led by Sheik Aktar Zaman. They have quite a few soldiers, well-funded and heavily armed. We don’t know their exact numbers. Our Intel says it’s significant. They’re so splintered and have small cells sprinkled all over the Middle East, it’s hard to get an exact count.”

What does this have to do with me? Andrew thought. Guess he’ll tell us.

“The second group is the Movement of Allah (MOA) headquartered in Cairo. Sheik Ollie Oganda and his lieutenant, Yasaid Ahmed, head the organization. Oganda is perhaps one of the most dangerous and aggressive despots in the world and has a lot of money to back him up. The CIA says he has moles and Intel agents integrated into virtually every government in the world. We’ve rounded up and deported more than twenty in the U.S. alone.”

Andrew and Bill exchanged confused looks, and leaned back in their chairs to see where this was going.

“Have you heard of these groups?”

“I know about the radical Muslim movement, but I don’t have any details,” Bill replied. Andrew also shook his head negatively.

Felix took another drink of his coffee and frowned as if he was trying to figure out what he wanted to say next. “We’re getting spotty information about some kind of strategic weapons project in the Pakistani Waziristan Valley. It is tough to get agents imbedded in the Middle East. Quite often, when we do, they’re sniffed out and eliminated. Moreover, we’re not always sure they are not double agents. We work hard to vet them before we turn them on. The information flow is not always continuous or complete.”

Andrew didn’t understand why this concerned him, but he kept quiet.

“I’m telling you this because the CIA has reason to believe the MOA has infiltrated your project.”

Shocked, Andrew sat up in his chair, deep furrows wrinkling his brow from the difficulty of coping with the bombshell Felix dropped on them. Technical problems are one thing, but now terrorists. “We haven’t seen any evidence of subterfuge or malfeasance.”

“I agree,” Bill added.

“Perhaps so, but the CIA thinks they may be keeping a low profile in order to steal our technology and build their own system. In fact, they think an MOA agent tried to kill Dr. Martin in Albuquerque.”

“Why would they want to kill her?” Andrew asked.

“We’re not sure. Maybe her expertise in system diagnostics and virus protection is a concern to them. We don’t know the reason. I’m glad Bill’s moving the two of you to the STL facility. It’ll be safer. Another scenario we’ve discussed is they are stealing our technology to build some kind of a mass destruction weapon system. Is it possible?” The expression on the Secretary’s face indicated his deep concern about Andrew’s answer.

“They could be trying to build their own wormhole system, but why?” Andrew asked. “We plan to make the technology accessible to everyone, so why would anyone try to steal it? As to the possibility of a weapon system, it’s feasible. The difficult part is they would need to have access to technology with very, very strict export restrictions. Finding qualified talent wouldn’t be easy either. The theoretical physics community is quite small — particularly those working in relativistic mechanics.”

“Okay, Andrew, you’ve told me what I need to know, for now. At any rate, you need to ensure your security at STL is at its highest level. I assure you; the DOD will be contacting STL shortly and clamping down hard.” Felix paused and took another drink of coffee. He looked away for a moment before he went on. “The last subject concerns our meetings with aliens—.”

“Bill briefed me this morning,” Andrew interrupted.

The Secretary smiled politely. “The Kandarians first noticed us in 1943, when America started testing atomic weapons. One of their survey ships was passing through our solar system and its sensors picked up the nuclear radiation from a test blast. They were curious and periodically visited Earth to investigate our culture and technology level. During the time they have surveyed us, they’ve picked up a considerable amount of information about our world.”

“Their technology must be phenomenal,” Andrew said.

“It is quite advanced. They’ve been using wormhole technology for five hundred years, and have wormhole corridors numbered and plotted across much of the galaxy. It’s sort of a dial a number space travel, if you will. Their technology is much advanced relative to what we’re implementing.”

This is very interesting, but why is Robinette telling me about it, and why were they spying on us?

“We first met with the Kandarians three years ago. Since then we’ve visited their planet several times. We’re convinced they’re peaceful. They want to establish long-term diplomatic relations with us and initiate cultural exchanges. One of their spacecraft detected your field generator tests at STL a few days ago. It didn’t take long for them to figure out what we were up to. They offered to loan us one of their physicists to help on the project. They can’t share their technology with us, it’s too advanced. The President has agreed, and their man should be arriving from Kandar within a few days. I want you and your team to take him into your complete confidence and let him help you.”

“What’s his name?” Bill asked.

“Dr. Tarnak Zontal. He’s a Physics Professor, and their equivalent of our Nobel Laureates.”

“I can’t wait to meet him,” Andrew replied. “Will he be dropped off in Washington?”

“Yes. Bill has agreed to make the necessary arrangements to get him to New Mexico. Well, unless you have something more, I need to go to the Joint Chiefs office for my next meeting. General Holmes is going to have a fit when he hears about the possibility of a new enemy weapon system. Thank you both for coming, and keep me informed.”

The Secretary shook their hands and escorted them to the door.

As Andrew left, he thought, Boy, wait until Dad hears about this! He’s not going to believe it. Guess we can trash the Project Bluebook Air Force report. I think I won the debate. He chuckled to himself.

Chapter 11

 

The Loft

Washington, D.C.

 

Andrew walked in the door of his loft, sat down, and called Marc to confirm his and Teri’s move to STL.

“Marc, I have some other news. Guarantee you’ll be shocked and amazed. I still have a few more things to get sorted out so I’ll brief you when I get back.”

“Thanks for leaving me hanging, pal. Well, tell Teri I said hello.”

“Will do. See you soon.” Andrew hung up and snickered. Marc’s curiosity will be working full tilt, he thought. Scooter came over and gave him his favorite rum and diet coke.

“Hi, Andrew. Hope you had a good day. Enjoy your drink. Gotta go finish my fishing show. Sam Waterman, the Bass King, is demonstrating some special casting techniques for hooking the big ones. See you later.” He turned and went back to the kitchen to watch the end of his show.

The boy loves to fish, and I’m going to do something about it. Andrew laughed to himself. He may only be a little robot, but so help me, I don’t think of him as a mechanical device. He seems more like a friend.

Andrew sat on the sofa enjoying his drink as Kala appeared. Standing there was a tall, twenty–something, slender, but curvy woman, reasonably busted with a great athletic build. She had short black hair, a lightly tanned complexion, and blue eyes. Her dark blue pinstriped business suit and blue pumps made her look very professional. She was beautiful!

She turned so Andrew could see her from all directions, before she sat in a plush leather office chair to talk. The movements were so fluidic and the hologram so perfect, it was impossible to tell it was not a real person. She crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap.

Kala has now become an adult. A very beautiful, professional looking young woman, he thought. It’s a shame she’s not human. It’s her strongest desire above everything else.

“Andrew, glad you’re home. We missed you.”

“Thanks, Kala. Love your new look.”

“I’m very pleased you noticed,” she said with a big smile.

“I’ve been transferred to the STL facility in New Mexico.” Andrew said, changing the subject.

“Will you want me to make your flight reservations?”

“No, I’m going to drive. I do want you to arrange to have some of my stuff moved to my quarters at STL. You can check my personal file for particulars.”

“Done. What about Scooter?”

“Make sure they pack him in a secure manner and send him on the moving van. Have you talked to Mom?”

“Every day, and she’s very upset you haven’t called her.”

“I’ll call her tonight.”

“I’ll make sure you do,” Kala said with an impish smile.

Scooter returned a few minutes later.

“Scooter, seen any good fishing shows lately?” Andrew asked.

“You bet! Andrew, you wouldn’t believe the thirteen pound bass they caught today. What a monster, and the fight he put up was terrific. I thought they would never reel him in. What a competitive fish.”

“Did they keep him?”

“Of course not. Real bass anglers always release their catch. Besides, the fun is in catching ‘em and having the opportunity to fight with them again. Boy, I wish I could go fishing.”

“Well, maybe we can make it happen soon,” Andrew said, grinning.

“Really? I can’t wait.” He spun his little head around to show his excitement, turned to go back to the kitchen, and noticed Kala. He stopped abruptly, and with his head bobbing up and down commented, “Wowee! Kala, you are a certified hotty. No kidding. What a dish!” While admiring Kala, he started up and ran into the door jam. “Darn, almost knocked my Bass King hat off. Stupid door.” He backed up went into the kitchen muttering. Andrew and Kala both laughed.

“I like the changes you made to Scooter. What did you do to him?” Andrew asked, taking a drink.

“Besides upgrading all of his processing and memory hardware, I enhanced his reasoning and learning abilities. I also gave him a new speech engine with improved dialog capabilities. Probably the most important thing I did was give him the ability to set goals and objectives for himself. Quite honestly, he’s likely one of the most sophisticated household robots in existence. I’m very satisfied with him,” she said with a smug look.

“You should be. We have some other things to discuss. I downloaded the codes for the computer system in my new quarters at STL. I’d like you to check the system out and make any upgrades or redesigns you want. It’ll be your home for some time. As soon as it’s finished and you’re ready to move in, go ahead and downlink. Also, make sure the holographic and camera systems are to your liking and get them fixed or redesigned if they’re not. I think there’s plenty of money in the miscellaneous accounts.”

Kala sat there smiling, slowly waving her crossed left foot up and down. “Money’s no longer a concern. You’re a very rich man. Besides, stop acting like my daddy. I’ll take care of it.”

“There’s more,” he said. “I put the security codes and passwords for the wormhole system in my office computer at STL. Your security clearances are already in place, so you have complete access to them. All of the files are encrypted and impossible to open if you don’t have the keys. I’ve also given you a backdoor access code to the system.”

“Can I be shut out of the back door?” Kala asked.

“No, it’s absolutely irrevocable. When you get to STL, I want you to look over the software, algorithms, and physics and be thoroughly familiar with all of it. Pay particular attention to data volume versus bandwidth and anything else related to system stability. You might also want to run an Entropy check on the networks. We’re getting ready to initiate the wormhole, and I want to make sure we haven’t made some fatal mistake. This startup is going to be a real spooky affair.”

“I’ll take care of it. Is there anything else?”

“Yes. Mitchel and I met with Secretary Robinette today, and he told us terrorists might have infiltrated our project. He thinks they may be trying to steal our technology. You can read my file and get the details.”

“I just read it. Did he say why?” Kala asked.

“He thinks they may be trying to build their own wormhole system or perhaps some kind of weapon system. I don’t mind saying, I’m concerned about the whole situation.”

“Efforts to recreate a wormhole system make no sense. A weapon system is a more logical conclusion. Either way, they would have some key acquisition issues to overcome. But there are ways of circumventing export restrictions if you have help.”

Andrew sipped his drink. “What kind of weapon system are you thinking about, Kala? And what kind of help?”

“I have an opinion, but I don’t want to disclose it yet. You know, to carry out their plan, they’d not only need to buy our hardware, but somehow gain access to our software code. I would compute, with a probability of 90 percent, if they plan to steal our technology, it would have to be an inside job. Since you need special encryption keys to get into the system, outside access would be impossible for any hacker. Stealing our software code would require a mole, and a very smart one. I’d ask Teri to make sure she sets up the proper firewalls, security barriers, and detailed system access tracking and log-on protocols. I can help her.”

“Let me know if you come up with anything.”

“I will. When do you leave?”

“In three days. What did you mean, I’m a rich man?”

“You said I could make investments for you. You never have to work again if you don’t want to. Money will never be an issue for you. I’ve also taken care of Mom and Dad.”

“I’m flabbergasted. Thank you so much, particularly for taking care of our parents.”

“All of you are my family, and I love you very much.”

“We love you, too,” Andrew said. “I’ve always considered you my little sister and my best friend, and I always will.”

Kala smiled. “You know,” she cocked her head to the side, “it sure would be fun to ride out to STL with you. Oh, well, maybe someday. Don’t forget we have to call Mom tonight.”

Jamie Dunn rang in on the vid link. She was dressed in a mini bikini and made sure Andrew could see the package. “Andrew, when are you coming back to New Mexico? I’ve missed you, baby.”

“Funny you should ask. I’m moving there to be close to my program.”

“Are you serious? I’m excited. When you get in call me and let’s get together. It’s been too long, sugar.”

“I’m taking the vet, and I should be there in two days.” I’ll call you as soon as we get into town.”

She turned so he could get a better look at her gorgeous boobs and the package he hadn’t enjoyed for a while. “Make sure you do, honey. I’m really horny for you.”

Andrew smiled. Just thinking about her got him aroused. “I’m anxious to see you too.” They just don’t make ‘em any sexier than her. I can’t wait to get there. Man have I missed her. “See you soon.”

 

After Andrew went to bed, Kala thought about the project she had been working on for several years. It had been a long and complex undertaking but it was just about finished. If she were successful, she would finally realize her greatest dream. I wonder if I’m doing the right thing? I’m going to have to face a lot of difficult issues, and I’m not sure how I will react to or resolve them. Well, I’ve put the wheels in motion, so I just have to see how things work out. I hope I’m not sorry.

 

Chapter 12

 

Robotics 2 Inc.

Bethesda, MD.

 

Jerry Muldoon, CEO of Robotics 2, sat drinking his first cup of coffee, staring suspiciously at the big package his secretary left on his desk. Founded by Jerry and Tom Stills, the company had been in business for five years. It was one of the most successful in America. Their designs were highly advanced and innovative. Initially they focused on industrial applications, but their markets grew to include androids, gynoids, industrial and household robotic applications. He was confident they were on top of their game.

Jerry opened what he thought was a routine business letter. Shit, the last thing I want to do today is plow through a box full of paper. I wanted to leave early and play some golf. Oh well, might as well see what this is all about.

He opened the letter. It was straightforward and simple.

 

‘I am placing a purchase order for an artificial human. It must comply with the drawings, processes and specifications enclosed without exception. Any request for deviation or relief from the enclosed drawings and specifications is unacceptable. We will cancel the request for product and the enclosed proposed business arrangement if we receive any such inquiries. You have thirty days to respond.’

 

Jerry was offended at first. How could someone impose such a stupid demand on our company? Don’t they know who Robotics 2 is? He almost trashed the letter, but his curiosity got the best of him. He cooled down and read on.

 

‘We have filed over six hundred patents, and they have been approved both domestically and internationally. We are willing to give you exclusive use of our patents with a 10 percent royalty deposited equally in the three accounts shown. With the exception of the ten patents listed below, you may have unlimited use of the remaining patents provided you deliver the humanoid, on the exact date shown, designed to the specifications, processes, and drawings included in the contract documentation. Robotics 2 personnel must deliver this humanoid and follow the setup instructions explicitly. We will deposit an initial sum of twenty million US dollars to your account as soon as we receive your letter of acceptance of our purchase order. Once we confirm the design meets all specification requirements, a letter of product acceptance and final payment of thirty million USD will occur. There will be no exceptions to any of our conditions.’

 

Jerry had seen these come-ons from crackpot inventors before and scoffed. I think some screwball is pulling my leg. Bet Stills is behind this. Wouldn’t be the first time he yanked my chain to get a laugh. Jerry continued to review the drawings and specifications. The more he read, the more excited he became. After an hour, he phoned his partner on the video link.

“Tom, come to my office right now. Drop everything and get in here, quick!”

“I’m in the middle of the weekly reports. What’s the excitement? You win the lotto or something?”

“Screw those reports. They’re of no importance compared to what I have to show you.”

Tom rushed into Jerry’s office. “What’s the big deal?” Tom said, as he sat down.

“We’ve been handed the greatest opportunity of our lives.”

“What kind of scam you playing on me? Trying to pay me back for the free Vegas hooker trip I pulled on you?”

“No, but I’ll get you back. You can count on it. Look … look at this letter, and peruse the first set of drawings and specifications. If this doesn’t get your attention, I’ll eat the box and kiss a fat donkey’s ass.”

Tom laughed and reviewed the drawings, top-level specifications, and studied the extensive patent file. “Jerry! Holy shit, you weren’t kidding. I don’t know what to say.”

“Keep reading, pal.”

Much of the entire company spent the next three weeks reviewing the golden egg dropped in their laps. Once he was satisfied they fully understood the order, Jerry called a meeting to commit the company.

His chief engineer, Dr. Charles Taylor, who had not slept much during the marathon review, started the discussions. “Gentlemen, I’ve had our entire engineering staff review this package. We’ve concluded the designs and drawings represent the most advanced gynoid ever invented. Actually, it would be more appropriate to call it a humanoid or artificial human. Frankly, its fifty to one hundred years ahead of anything we know about. It’s the most amazing piece of technology I’ve ever seen, no less imagined.”

“Explain, Charlie,” Jerry requested.

“In every way, boss. The brain is a new type of optical nano neural network quantum computer architecture smaller and much faster than any known supercomputer. The nano technology is so advanced the central processor will consist of an array of 1000 supercomputers. I’m not sure what kind of software will be embedded in this processor, but the computing capability is unimaginable. Triple redundancy in every circuit is a big reliability boost. The computing and memory architecture alone involve fifty-two patents. The memory is a new type of nano technology. It has grossly more storage capacity and faster than any current or other research technology, we know about. The density and reliability of components is several orders of magnitude beyond current state-of-the-art. It stores data bits by manipulating atoms and photons. Unbelievably, the electronics is self-healing, and provides for constant cross checking of system operational status. The design corrects malfunctions and errors as they occur. The entire gynoid is so human-like it’s spooky.”

Jerry smiled to himself. Man we have hit the proverbial jackpot. Son of a bitch, he thought. Mother luck has surely blessed us. “Please continue.”

“Her blue eyes are a new design, and almost impossible to distinguish from a humans. The eyes have an amazing zoom and other capabilities. They peak at 5500 nanometers, yellow-green like ours, but have the capability to shift the peak into the infrared and UV range,” Charlie explained. “They make adaptive optics appear simplistic. The hearing sensors are pretty much like ours, but with a slightly extended frequency range, improved noise processing, and an amplification capability. The gynoid will be able to detect very low sounds as well as hear coherently in high background noise.

“Charlie, have you uncovered anything beyond our capabilities?” Jerry asked.

“No, boss,” Taylor replied. “We’re going to have to deal with extremely advanced technology, but the details and drawings are specific enough so we can handle it. The drawing package gives complete manufacturing processes, specifications, and detailed designs for all parts of the gynoid. I’ve never seen a design ensemble this complete. Only an absolute genius could have put a package like this together. There will be a substantial engineering and capital investment.”

“I understand. Go on, Charlie,” Jerry replied.

“It just gets better,” Taylor said, smiling. “The design has lung-like devices which we don’t completely understand yet. They appear to not only provide air to modulate the vocal cords, but they’re also tied into a system still a bit of a mystery to us. She will breathe air, but she doesn’t need it except to talk. I‘ve got more on this later.

There’s a heart-like mechanism integrated with the lung system. It circulates some type of fluid through the gynoid’s body. The fluid can regenerate if any leakage occurs. We are not sure yet how these systems are integrated, or exactly how they work, but the design, chemistry and manufacturing processes are very detailed so we can build them. If I had to venture a guess, I think they’re similar to the lungs and heart of humans in their operation — and function.”

“Well, let’s make sure, Charlie. I’ll want to see some type of risk mitigation procedures for anything we don’t fully understand — before we proceed.”

“I’ll make sure it happens, Jerry.”

“Go on.”

“The power systems are completely new and, from what we can tell right now, will never require recharging in the sense we understand. Our analyses indicate it recharges through the skin structure, using nano fibers, and lung activity. The heart and fluid system we discussed earlier appear to be an integral part of this. Much of the energy is stored in the fluid until it’s needed,” Charlie explained. “And here’s the weird thing. The skin is human-like. It’s made from a waterproof nanotechnology fiber, and the texture and composition will feel like real skin,” Taylor said.

“Is the skin tone and complexion specified?” Sills asked.

“Yes, it is. In addition, the gynoid will have a sense of touch as we do. It will easily differentiate between hot, cold, pressure and sense any type of vibration. Heat and touch sensors are provided by carbon nanotubes, 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair. They’re the most efficient thermal and photonic conductors in existence and very flexible. It even has fingerprints to enhance its sense of touch as ours do. The skin incorporates a triple redundant sensory system. If the skin is damaged it’s also self-healing. The process for this is amazing to say the least. Any questions so far?”

Jerry shook his head in disbelief. “A million, but proceed on, this is too good to interrupt.”

“Like humans, she also has a gustatory system with six chemoreceptor sensors, or taste sensors, to enable her to detect sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. Also, believe it or not, she’ll have an olfactory capability superior to humans.”

“Explain, Charlie.” Jerry said.

“Simple. Our olfactory epithelium, which contains the olfactory sensory processors or sensor neurons, is only 1.6 square inches in area. Her epithelium will be twice the size of ours and more densely populated. Not only will she have a more sensitive olfactory capability, but she’ll be able to distinguish thousands of different odors, including pheromones. Her taste sensors not only serve for sociological functions, but work with her olfactory sensors to serve as a key survival mechanism.”

Tom looked at Jerry, smiled and said, “Happy birthday, Jer.”

Jerry nodded. “Go on, Charlie, you‘re making, my day.”

Taylor cleared his throat, took a sip of water, and paused for a moment before he proceeded. “The skeleton or framework is a new type of composite carbon nano tube like fiber. It’s lightweight, extremely strong, and superior to the actual bone architecture of a human. The joints are self-lubricating. Our metallurgists are studying it and believe it will have applications to all of our product lines. The hands and feet are human-like and as flexible.”

“What about facial expressions? No gynoid I know of has such capability,” Stills remarked.

“This gynoid will have complete capability to move its facial features,” Charles said smiling. “You won’t believe this, but the entire muscular system is some type of biological-type hydraulic system activated by the internal nerve system and tied in with the heart and fluid system we discussed earlier. The material is flexible like real muscles, but five times stronger. In addition, this system is also self-healing. From the design I saw, the gynoid will be beautiful in appearance and will have straight blonde hair —”

Jerry interrupted. “Like human hair?”

“Yes! It will actually grow as will its finger and toe nails.”

“This thing seems like it’s being designed to emulate a real human.”

“You won’t be able to tell the difference without an extensive medical examination.”

“Amazing. Does it take water and food?” Jerry asked.

“The design provides for food and water intake, but doesn’t need it. It’ll extract energy from any ingested food or water and discharge waste similar to humans.”

“What else, Charlie?” Stills inquired.

“Buckle your seat belts! The real shocker is this gynoid is equipped with a reproductive system, which allows her to reproduce using human sperm. She will be capable of conception like a human female — only she’ll be able to control when. As far as we can tell, the offspring would be human like, only its mother can control its physical and mental characteristics during incubation. The gynoid is equipped with a birth canal, so it appears it is capable of natural childbirth. The contracts are explicit in stating the reproductive system is not for use beyond the existing gynoid.”

Tom Stills piped up and said, “There’s no way we would want to create a gynoid with this capability. The ethical and moral ramifications are too great to even consider.”

“I agree, Tom,” Jerry said. “By the way, you haven’t mentioned anything about software or programming.”

“The contract prohibits us from incorporating any software what so ever except a simple boot strap program and its coding is specified,” Charlie replied. “The contract documentation doesn’t have anything on pattern recognition, voice or audio processing, data base processing, inference, thinking or computing algorithms. I can only imagine the power and technological advancements the creator has in mind for the intellectual assets of this gynoid.”

“Sure takes a lot of risk out of the contract,” Stills remarked.

Jenifer Thomas, their corporate lawyer, had sat through the meeting and not said a word.

“What’s your take on these contracts, Jenifer?”

Jenifer straightened up in her chair. Her normally cool and calculating eyes were blazing with excitement. “Jerry, I’ve reviewed the proposed contract, patent disclosures and filing status of same. The person who wrote this contract and the methodology of the patent disclosure process was nothing short of brilliant. There are no loopholes or any way to get around any of the 600 patents. They’re offering us unlimited use of the patents and only want small royalty payments. In my opinion, this is a legal theft. I think we’d be crazy to turn this down.”

Tom stood up and said, “I agree with Jenifer. I think we should sign this contract immediately. Charlie, in your opinion, can we build this gynoid to the exact system specifications and drawings within the time period required?”

“Yes, Tom, but it will require most of our engineering and manufacturing resources. Production of all other new orders will be shut down for six months at least, unless we expand the company.”

“Again I ask. Charlie, can we meet 100 percent of the specifications without request for waiver or deviation of any kind and deliver on schedule?”

“Yes.”

Jerry sat there for a moment to collect his thoughts. He still couldn’t believe the phenomenal opportunity that had fallen into their lap. “Guys, this technology is so important we have to accept this contract. We’ll set up a new Advanced Research Division totally dedicated to this program, and spin off the technology to our other product lines as well as fueling new product development. If we get this right, Robotics 2 will virtually own the robotic market. This is a multibillion dollar present,” Jerry said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Tom looked at Jerry and the two of them came to a non-verbal agreement to proceed.

“Okay, Jenifer, bring the contracts to my office as quickly as you can get them ready for signature — we do have a timeline. I want this new division set up as soon as possible,” Jerry said. “This has to be our top priority.”

“Boss, we’re going to need quite a few new people in all departments to staff up for this,” Taylor remarked.

“I understand, Charlie. I’ll instruct HR to prioritize new hiring to fill the void of personnel shifted over to the new contract. We will meet all of the requirements of this contract without exception, regardless of the cost. Charlie will be our new vice president and division manager, and act as the program manager. Any questions?” Jerry asked.

“Thank you, Boss,” Charlie said.

Jenifer smiled. “Great decision, boss. This is going to make our company very rich.”

 

When Jennifer got back to her office, she couldn’t get the idea of android reproduction out of her mind, so she pulled up the patents file and sat pondering the fortune her company had bypassed. I think the company is crazy not to pursue these patents. They have to be worth billions. Growing babies and harvesting the organs and stem cells must be a multibillion-dollar market alone. I’m not going to forget it. I may have to wait sixteen years, but I bet I can find someone to capitalize such an adventure — particularly some rich sheik in the Middle East. This is my ticket to untold wealth. I just have to be patient.

Chapter 13

 

STL

Mission Control Center

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Three years of hard work culminated in this one milestone — activation of the wormhole. Andrew considered all of the possible failure scenarios. I have dreamed of this moment ever since Kala and I were kids. I’ve taken a few hard knocks and it hasn’t been easy, but we’re finally here. I can’t figure out if I’m just plain scared or excited. Bet Kala’s ecstatic. Well, we’ve double checked everything and taken every precaution. Guess it’s game time.

Andrew felt the tension rising in the MCC as the countdown to activation continued. Despite months of planning and staged precautions, the chance existed that they may have overlooked something.

 

Kala appeared. “Well, Andrew, today’s the day. Are you ready for this?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, grinning. “Please stay close to the system control console in case I need you.”

Kala gave him a knowing smile. You aren’t fooling me, Andrew Stevenson. I know how excited and scared you are under your calm exterior. I’d think something was wrong if you didn’t have a small case of nerves. She chuckled to herself. She knew Andrew all too well. Being frightened wasn’t part of Kala’s makeup. To her everything was a simple matter of physics, mathematics, and probability of success or failure. Problems were an opportunity to learn.

“Well, Bro, there are a few areas needing more work, but my analyses indicates we have an excellent chance of success.”

“Good news is what I need to hear right now,” he said.

 

Marc stood so everyone in the MCC could see him. “Ladies and gentlemen, I realize we’re all on edge, so please, settle down, take a deep breath and focus.”

“Well, Mister Director, are we ready?” Andrew asked, taking a deep breath.

Marc wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Sweating in an air-conditioned environment, go figure. Let’s do a final round robin. If everything looks good, we’ll initiate the startup sequence.”

Andrew nodded agreement. He tried to appear confident, but despite his calm demeanor, he was a bundle of nerves. He felt his pulse pounding in his ears. If anything went wrong, he would be responsible … if he survived — if anyone survived.

“Attention, this is the system test director,” Marc announced. “We’re now going to do a round robin status check. When your station is queried, enter a go or no-go indication. Computer, initiate a status query on all subsystems, and enter the data in the system status registry.”

 

“WORKING. STATUS UPDATED. ALL SYSTEMS ARE GO.”

 

Marc smiled precariously at Andrew. “Shall we light the fuse?”

Out of habit, Andrew checked the system metrics display board on the front wall. “It’s been a long time coming,” he replied. He glanced at Kala and she nodded her approval. “Let’s do it.”

“Andrew, I’ll be monitoring things inside and outside the system. If I see anything funny I’ll let you know immediately,” Kala said.

“Attention,” Marc announced. “As I call your function, complete your activation sequence and acknowledge. Okay, let’s get started. Power and all support systems on and ready.”

The support station engineers brought up all power, cooling and auxiliary support systems. The systems lead engineer was very particular. After he made a few adjustments and was fully satisfied, he said, “Go.”

“I guess we’re ready to make a wormhole,” Marc said to Andrew, chuckling softly to hide his anxiety. “Daniel, initiate the wormhole design synthesis program. Here we go, gang. Let’s rock and roll.”

“Roger, Marc.” Daniel sequentially entered the wormhole design parameters as prompted by the system control software. Within a few minutes, the computer responded.

 

“The wormhole design has been simulated and optimized. System IS READY to transfer data to the field and matter SYNTHESIZERS.”

 

Andrew double-checked the location where the system shutdown button was located — just in case. He ran his hand through his hair, and noted the sweat on his forehead.

“Very good,” Marc replied. “Activate the field and matter synthesizer subsystems.”

“Roger, flight.” Scott entered the initiation sequences. The powerful subsystems came on, demanding an enormous amount of energy. The power subsystems struggled to keep up. The power drain was so severe it caused the facility lights to dim. Everyone glanced around nervously, scanning the status and metric displays hoping the power glitch was only a transient event. To everyone’s relief, the power subsystem equalized and yielded the megawatts required. The lighting returned to normal and the synthesizer systems ramped up to full operating potential.

The systems control computer announced its status:

 

“THE field and matter synthesizers are on-line, awaiting design parameter TRANSFER.”

 

Marc took a deep breath, and said, “Initiate the data transfer, Daniel.”

Daniel manipulated the controls on his holographic display and uploaded the optimized parameters to the field and matter synthesizers. After a brief time, which seemed like an eternity to Andrew, the metrics representing the synthesis of the fields and exotic materials required for creation of the wormhole displayed green.

 

What a relief. I hope our design equations are right, Andrew thought. I’m glad we kept the data transfer command manual — at least for now. It’s comforting to know we can shut things down if they go sour on us.

 

“AWAITING WNS TIME AND SPATIAL COORDINATE DATA.”

 

Kimberly initiated download from WNS to get the time and exact coordinates of the source position. Following parameter download completion, Kimberly entered the final commands. The star map on the front wall video display began to twist; moving stars around the contours of the space the wormhole was folding and twisting. Both the main display and holographic display showed the puckered wormhole design, superimposed within the contorted star map. To everyone’s relief, the displays showed the wormhole connecting Earth with Alpha Centauri 5 through the bridge they had created.

We’ve unleashed the monster. Let’s hope we can control it, Andrew thought.

The status and diagnostic board indicated the wormhole was in a stable mode. Marc smiled at Andrew and continued his checks. The data transfer between the simulator and field synthesizer systems was acceptable and the entropy metric registered mid-range. The new compression algorithms were maintaining data flow within the system’s bandwidth capacity. Andrew and Kimberly exchanged looks of relief. Kimberly, the designer of the algorithms, was grinning ear to ear.

 

“WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS COMPLETE. THE BRIDGE BETWEEN EARTH AND ALPHA CENTAURI 5 IS IN PLACE. ALL METRICS ARE WITHIN SPECIFICATION REQUIREMENTS.”

 

Tension in the MCC lifted. Andrew’s stomach still felt queasy. His butterflies were going nuts.

After two hours of operation without incident, Marc announced the next event. “Team, the system’s stable, so let’s move the bridge. Scott, please enter the coordinates for PL 2.”

Scott obtained the data from WNS; entered the space-time coordinates; and entered the commands to direct the wormhole to create a new bridge between Earth and Polaris 2. The star map began to contort and bend. As it moved, it twisted and folded space, creating a strange star pattern. After a few minutes, the bridge stabilized and a short cut between the two worlds was established.

 

“BRIDGE TO POLARIS 2 IS IN PLACE. ALL SYSTEM METRICS ARE WITHIN SPECIFIED TOLERANCES.”

 

“Okay, let’s incorporate the starship trajectory into the wormhole so we can achieve the max data transfer rate we wanted to test,” Andrew said.

Marc nodded, and announced, “Computer, insert the ship trajectory into the bridge with a 0.5 light speed.”

 

“TRAJECTORY INCORPORATED. END POINT pl 2 ESTABLISHED. all data transfer rates are within system bandwidth specifications. SYStem is stable.”

 

Andrew sighed in relief and grabbed his coffee. His heart raced a mile a minute. He saw Teri wipe her brow. So far so good, he thought. I feel a bit relieved … for now.

Kala abruptly interrupted his thoughts. “Andrew, stay alert. I’m detecting some peculiar transient system actions. Looks like a stability issue. Something has changed in the system.”

Damn, now what? he wondered. After a few minutes, the system metrics showed some variation. The stability matrix changed and the status board flashed warnings. Several feedback control loop parameters begin to indicate the start of instability. Warning horns sounded, the yellow caution lights flashed, and the AI software agents displayed corrective action options.

Marc and Andrew entered data in response to the software agent’s corrective action recommendations. Holy shit, this thing’s beginning to break loose. Andrew thought. If the shutdown protocols don’t hold, we’re in for a lot of trouble here.

The stability metric grew worse. The computer gave a stern announcement:

 

“Warning. system stability is MARGINAL. Take recommended corrective action immediately.”

 

“What the hell do you think we’re doing? Stupid computers!” Marc growled.

Andrew selected an option presented by the software agents, entered an override command and held his breath. The system slowly responded, and the stability metrics returned to their normal configuration. The horns shut down, and the lights quit flashing.

 

“System Stabilized. ALL METRICS ARE WITHIN DESIGN TOLERANCES.”

 

Marc sighed in relief. “I thought the system was about to go bug fuck on us. I’m sure glad we implemented those AI shutdown and corrective action algorithms.”

“I’m thankful they worked,” Andrew replied. “We need to beef up the power system. Did you see the lights dim when we brought the synthesizers on line?”

“Did I ever. I’ll have additional power units flown in tonight and installed before eight tomorrow morning. I’ll make sure we have plenty of margin.”

Andrew sat down hard and shook his head. Man, I thought it was all over.

“Are you all right, Tiger?” Kala asked. “It appeared worse than it actually was. I ran a check and we still had a fair degree of margin left. I will say this; we need to do some more work on our compression algorithms. There’s something else is going on inside the system, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“I’m just a bit shook up — in fact a lot! Let me know what you find. When you get time, give me your recommendations on the compression algorithms. Marc, are you ready to shut this beast down?”

“Yeah, I think we’ve all had enough for one day.”

 

A week later the new power systems had been installed and exhaustive diagnostic testing completed. Marc and Andrew considered their go forward position.

“Well, Andrew, what’s your thoughts?”

“Tell you one thing; our little hiccup scared the crap out of me. I think we need to have the guys do some additional investigative work before we go any further.”

“I agree wholeheartedly. Next time it might not be so easy to fix,” Marc said, as he stood and stretched.

“Teri, we want you, Kala, Daniel and Scott to do an in depth analysis to see if any of our code has changed. I also think we need to include a virus hunt. I’m not sure, but I think something changed. We need to know what and why,” Andrew said. “We’re going to put the beta test on hold for a while.”

“I’ll get right on it, Andrew,” Teri replied. Scott, Daniel, and Kala joined Teri at the diagnostic console. “Let’s start with a complete system code diagnostic,” she suggested.

“Guys, I bet we have multiple problems,” Daniel offered.

“I sure hope not. One’s bad enough. Computer, run a comprehensive code check. We want to know if anyone or anything made changes to the field equations or any other subsystem code,” Teri commanded.

 

“WORKING ON ALL FILES, DOCTOR.”

 

Teri scanned the metrics and diagnostic display trying to uncover some clue to the near mishap, waiting for the computer to complete its analysis.

 

“ANALYSIS COMPLETED. THE CHANGE TRACKING REGISTRY SHOWS MINOR CHANGES TO THE FIELD EQUATION METRICS AT SYSTEM STARTUP AND CHANGED THE DATA TRANSFER RATE. THE CORRECTION PROTOCOLS REVERSED THE MODIFICATION AND RESTORED STABILITY.”

 

Confusion marred Daniel’s face. “Nothing in the system code can make those kinds of changes. Right, Scott? What the shit’s going on?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” Scott said, scratching his head.

Kala couldn’t help but break in and give her opinion. “Teri, we need to do a password correlation analysis. Maybe someone inadvertently made a change.”

“Okay. Computer conduct a password correlation analysis against the code modification time line,” Teri ordered.

 

“ANALYSIS COMPLETED. THERE IS NO RECORD OR CORRELATION WITH ANY PASSWORD USED TO MAKE THE CODE CHANGE.”

 

“This is really strange. It makes no sense. Code doesn’t change on its own,” Teri surmised.

“You know, Teri, the data tends to imply a simple transient malfunction of some sort,” Scott said, giving her a sideways analytical glance.

“Possible, but the pre-op system diagnostics should have caught it,” Kala injected.

“Maybe, but transient conditions are really hard to capture.”

“I vote we’ve been hit with a clever virus. It’s probably smart, and it won’t make the same mistake again. It was too easy for the corrective action protocols to fix it. The question is how did it get into the system?” Daniel wondered aloud.

“Andrew, the analysis appears to be indeterminate,” Teri said. “I think we need to run a complete system diagnostic and a heuristic pattern virus scan. Maybe we do have multiple issues. At any rate, we need to find the underlying cause of this … quickly. We may not be so lucky next time.”

“I agree. If no one entered the system at the time the code was modified, it has to be a system transient malfunction or a maybe a latent virus component.”

“It’ll take a while. I’m going to work with Kala to modify the scanner strategy and add a few new routines. If there is a virus component, the current implementation isn’t cutting it. It’ll take some time, so bear with me.”

Four hours later, Teri and Kala completed the changes. “Computer, run a complete system diagnostic and virus analysis on all subsystems. Integrate the new routines and provide status board reports as each subsystem is completed,” Teri commanded. I sure hope Kala can spot something; Teri took a slug of coffee.

 

“SYSTEM DIAGNOSTICS, HEURISTIC ANALYSIS AND VIRUS SCAN IS IN PROCESS.”

 

Eight hours later the computer announced the results:

 

“ANALYSIS COMPLETE. NO VIRUS INFESTATION FOUND. SYSTEM DIAGNOSTICS IS COMPLETE. NO ERRORS WERE UNCOVERED.

 

“Well, Andrew, I think we should go ahead,” Marc suggested.

“I don’t know what else we can do. Okay, let’s go on,” he replied.

“Attention, team,” Marc announced. “We’re going to initiate system startup and keep the wormhole in place for eight more hours. I want all consoles manned continuously. Congratulations and good work.”

Marc brought the system on-line and all metrics appeared satisfactory. Andrew got up and stretched. “I think I’ll go to my office and call Bill.” I wish I could figure out what is causing the system to act so crazy. It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what I’m going to tell him.

 

Teri arose from her diagnostic console, put her hands in the fold of her back and stretched her tired, aching muscles. She reinitiated the system diagnostics and virus scans. It would take a while, since they were time multiplexing. “Computer, how much time to complete the diagnostic, and virus scan?”

 

“THE DIAGNOSTIC WILL COMPLETE IN ONE HOUR AND THIRTY-ONE MINUTES. THE VIRUS SCAN IS STARTING AND WILL TAKE TWO HOURS AND FOURTEEN MINUTES LONGER. COMPLETION TIME IS 1645.104 HOURS.”

 

“Computer, make sure you continue to link all results to Code K234.”

 

“TRANSMITTING ALL DATA TO CODE K234 AS IT BECOMES AVAILABLE, DOCTOR.”

 

The wormhole seemed benign … for now. I wonder what’s really going on inside of the system, Teri thought.

So far, they had been able to keep the beast in check, but it was just waiting for some mistake … any mistake. The monster strained to break loose. She shivered at the thought of it getting out of control. Think I’ll go visit with Andrew. I should have gone into teaching. This is too intense to suit me.

Teri rode the elevator up, walked down the hall, and went through Andrew’s door.

“Want some company?”

“Sure, always glad to see you. You’re looking tired.”

She dropped into the guest chair and let her head roll back. “I am,” she said.

Andrew fiddled with his pen and said, “It got a bit scary this morning.”

Teri brushed her hair back, and replied, “I think we need to stay on top of this situation. It could bite us. The beast is waiting for an opportunity to break loose. It doesn’t like to be constrained. We could all wind up wormhole food.”

Andrew laughed. “Funny, but true.”

“What do you think we should do, Andrew? We don’t want this thing to get out of control.”

“Kala has the backdoor code and is monitoring the system for any hiccups. She hasn’t recommended a delay or shutdown … yet. If this thing starts to go south on us, our only fallback position is the shutdown protocols. I gave you Kala’s access code so you can contact her. She’s using a Red, Yellow, Green dot alert code. I’ll ask her to link you to it. If your analyses don’t disclose anything, I’m not sure what to do. We can’t shut the project down and chase our tail. I want you to make this your top priority and focus on it, to the exclusion of everything else, until we run this thing to ground.”

“I will. I can try several things, and I’m sure Kala will have some good suggestions. I instructed the computers to give Kala all of the diagnostic results real-time, and I’m coordinating the analysis with her. The best thing we can do right now is let the system and diagnostic routines run and collect all of the data we can.”

“I hope we find out what caused our glitch. It’s bothering me. I keep thinking this thing’s going to go unstable at any moment,” Andrew said.

“Sooner or later we’ll nail the problem.”

“I just hope it doesn’t nail us first.”

Teri was dying to know the situation between him and Jamie. She didn’t want to ask but couldn’t help herself. “By the way, how are you and Jamie getting along? The last time we chatted, things were getting pretty serious.”

“We broke up a couple of weeks ago. She thought I spent too much time at work and was ignoring her. I guess she’s right, this project seems to consume all my time.”

“I’m sorry. I hope it didn’t upset you too much.” It’s about time he dumped that slut. Teri put a fake empathetic look on her face. She was delighted they broke it off. “Well, I think I’ll go to my office, put my feet on my desk, and chill out. Let me know when you’re ready to go back down.” She paused at the door and said, “I’ve got a very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I don’t like it.”

Andrew stared back and nodded. “Me, too. The butterflies in my stomach are out of control.”

Teri grinned all the way to her office. I am not about to let that slut weasel her way back into his life. I want that man in my life.

Chapter 14

h1<{color:#000;}.

STL

Mission control Center

 

Andrew’s monitor beeped. It was Marc. His eyes were wild and his voice shaky. “I think the friggin system’s going unstable! Get down to Mission Control immediately!”

“I’ll be right there.” Holy shit! Andrew’s stomach churned at the thought the monster might break loose. I hope the protocols hold. I’m shutting this thing down until we find out what’s causing these problems. I’ll worry about the critics later.

“Let’s go. Fire in the hole!” Andrew yelled as he ran past Teri’s office.

“Right behind you.”

Andrew joined Marc at the Mission Control Console and studied the status displays on the front wall. A small yellow dot blinked on his Qtab. Kala was giving the caution sign. He paged through the system metrics menus, trying to determine what was causing the stability issue.

Teri sat at her console and began performing a detailed analysis of all subsystems.

“The virus scan and diagnostic testing has not uncovered any issues so far,” she reported.

“Great! What the hell’s going on?” Marc snapped. “We got a phantom in the system? This is nuts! Daniel, do you or Scott see anything?”

“Some of the metrics are starting to vary, but they’re still in spec.” Daniel replied.

“Steady, Marc,” Andrew cautioned. “We don’t want to get the team spun up.”

“This is frustrating the shit out of me!”

“I know, but we just gotta work the process — we’ll figure it out,” Andrew said. I hope to hell we do, he thought.

The system stability metric was starting to blink and all of the metrics on the status board were becoming erratic.

“Look at the metrics!” Scott yelled. ”

Andrew checked the entropy calculations. It was obvious the data transfer rate was exceeding the network’s bandwidth. Several feedback control loop metrics showed initial signs of oscillatory behavior.

Oh, no, Andrew thought, this thing’s getting ready to bust out on us.

The system control computer announced:

 

“SYSTEM STABILITY MARGINAL. INITIATE APPROPRIATE CORRECTIVE ACTION.”

 

“Marc, the power systems are starting to vary! I think the entire system is beginning to teeter on instability,” Teri warned.

“Damn it to hell!” Marc yelled. “Power systems … please correct the power system variation immediately!”

“We’re trying, control. The power system isn’t responding.”

Marc and Andrew looked at each other and nodded. “Attention, team. The system stability metric is exceeding safe limits. All stations, standby to initiate system shut down,” Marc ordered.

Thank God, we implemented a foolproof shutdown protocol, Andrew thought.

The computer came over the intercom and validated their conclusion.

 

“THE SYSTEM STABILITY METRIC HAS EXCEEDED TOLERANCE. CORRECTIVE ACTION HAS FAILED. INITIATE SYSTEM SHUTDOWN.”

 

The yellow caution lights flashed at ten second intervals throughout the facility.

 

“ATTENTION. initiate system shutdown immediately.”

 

“Scott, have you or Daniel identified the cause of the problem?” Marc asked — his quivering voice revealing a high state of anxiety.

“No, Marc. We have to shut the bastard down. If we don’t, the monster’s gonna kill us all,” Scott replied.

“Shutdown sequence commencing,” Andrew said.

 

“WARNING! system and wormhole instability imminent. initiate shutdown immediately.”

 

The announcements annoyed Andrew. “No shit, Sherlock! I didn’t know!” He accessed the system shutdown protocols — recommended by the software agents — and initiated the process. Daniel and Kimberly stood behind the control console, looking over Andrew’s shoulder. About halfway through the process, the system quit responding. Andrew repeatedly initiated the reset protocols. The system refused to shut down.

“It ain’t looking good, guys,” Scott quipped, biting his lip.

“There’s no reason the metrics or protocols should change.” Daniel remarked. “Only direct command input can modify them.”

“Teri, have you run across anything related to the protocol malfunction we experienced?”

“No, Andrew. The diagnostics are clean. I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Where’s Kala?”

“I don’t know. I guess she’s in the system somewhere.”

The wormhole instability was distorting space within the facility. Time itself seemed to be changing. First slowing, speeding up slightly, and making everyone’s movements appear erratic. Clean linear edges and objects bent and swayed with the time distortion.

The information on the front wall display looked fuzzy, and the characters appeared to be moving around. The warning lights started to alternate between yellow and red, and the claxons screamed loudly at ten second intervals.

We’re losing control. Andrew continued to try to shut the system down. The space around him appeared to be swaying around — bending and warping. Everything seemed surreal.

 

“ATTENTION! all unnecessary personnel must vacate the FACILITY immediately. THE System will SELF-DESTRUCT in THIRTY minutes.”

 

Andrew tried to break into the system, but it locked him out.

“This isn’t going to work. We have to go for an alternative,” Kimberly declared.

“I think we can shut the power systems off at the power junction boxes down the tunnel way,” Marc suggested. “We better hurry. I don’t know how long we’ll be able to rely on our normal senses. The wormhole’s making things look very strange. Our space–time continuum is going to get really weird.”

Andrew nodded agreement. “Teri, stay here with Daniel. Lars, help them try to get the protocols to work.

“You better hurry, Andrew. I don’t think we have much time left,” Lars said.

“We’re going to head down the tunnel to shut down power at the junction boxes. There’s four boxes, so I think it’ll take all three of us. Let’s take a cart.”

Teri, Daniel, and Lars remained at the MCC console and continued to try to initiate the shutdown sequence. The system control computer refused to respond.

 

“sELF-DESTRUCT WILL OCCUR in TWENTY-FIVE minutes.”

 

In abject fear of the impending catastrophe, almost everyone inside the MCC left their stations: trying to find a way out of the hellish environment as fast as they could. They fought each other to get into the elevators and stairways.

The warning sirens pulsated with a harsh, loud shrill and the red lights flashed at five second intervals.

I wish I could turn those things off, Andrew thought. They’re scaring the shit out of me. This has to be anyone’s worst nightmare.

Wormhole stability continued to deteriorate, creating a contorted space–time environment grossly exaggerating people’s movements. Speech slurred and time itself seemed to be oscillating. Everyone appeared to move in slow jerky motions like an old movie film running at slow speed.

Marc, Scott, and Andrew made their way to a personnel utility cart and headed down the tunnel way to the junction box substation. The high-pressure accelerator cooling lines sagged with the forces exerted on them by the wormhole, which was fighting to break loose. Some lines cracked, discharging steam into the tunnel with a loud hiss making it difficult to see.

People ran down the tunnel screaming, tripping over each other, terrified by the phantasmagorical space-time continuum around them. Andrew thought they looked like ghosts moving at slow speed through the dense steam. Most of those in the tunnel way were workers with no of idea what was going on — scared out of their minds.

The high-density steam, dimorphic space-time environment, red warning lights, loud claxons, and frightening computer announcements made the whole thing seem like a B grade horror movie.

Andrew swerved the cart in all directions to keep from hitting people. The undulating geometry of normal linear objects made it difficult to keep the cart on track and screwed with his coordination. It was all he could do to avoid running over people.

Objects were grotesque with unfamiliar shapes. The space around him turned into something from another dimension — twisted, bending, jerking around with multiple images. The tunnel floor oscillated in a slow sinusoidal motion, and the overhead piping swayed back and forth like giant snakes.

 

“WARNING. ALL PERSONNEL HAVE TWENTY MINUTES TO EVACUATE.”

 

The red warning lights flashed at five-second intervals and the environment made more intense and scary by the warning claxons. The sound was so loud it hurt Andrew’s ears. The space-time convolutions became weirder. The walls of the facility seemed to be moving slowly back and forth, and appeared they would collapse at any second. The floor rolled like small sea waves.

Teri saw Lars running in slow motion toward the MCC elevators. She watched as he collided with two people trying to get into the elevator, knocking them to the floor and taking their place.

Almost everyone in the MCC left his or her stations, trying to find a place of safety. She knew there was no escape. Teri fought her fear and kept working.

Daniel was at the design simulator console when a high-pressure cooling line ruptured, spewing high-pressure steam into the room with a shrill hissing noise. He looked up as a piece of metal flew across the room, striking him in the head. He screamed, and hit the floor hard, blood oozing from a wound in his forehead. He didn’t move or make any sound. Teri ran over to him. Tears streamed down her face as she tried to revive him, but got no response.

Don’t freak out, she though as she dragged Daniel over to the system control console.

The space-time continuum continued to degrade. The dense steam with its loud hiss, the warning claxons, red lights, and swaying walls caused Teri to get sick at her stomach.

Her confused senses made it difficult to interpret things in a logical way. She had the sensation she was moving at slow speed. Every motion seemed exaggerated, and her dexterity became sluggish and difficult.

Teri fought the urge to vomit. It was like trying to work in a confusing strobe light environment set at a frequency to make people sick. She glanced at Daniel and thought; he’s bleeding, so his heart’s pumping. Well, the bleeding’s almost stopped, so he’ll have to wait. I have to get back to the shutdown sequence or it won’t matter. I hope Andrew’s having some luck. This is a friggin nightmare. Where’s Kala?

 

Andrew and the guys continued down the tunnel, swerving to miss ruptured cooling lines, debris, and people lying helplessly in the tunnel way crying out for help. As they rounded one turn, a large man jumped on the cart. He screamed at the top of his lungs as he beat Andrew. The attack was so savage Andrew couldn’t control the cart. It veered wildly, crashing into the tunnel wall, throwing everyone out. Marc hit the wall, shook his head, and groggily got on his feet. Scott lay face down. The big man was on top of Andrew, and continued to beat him while yelling profanities.

Andrew tried to fight back, but the man was irrational and too powerful. Andrew’s eyes were swelling shut.

“Marc, help. Get this bastard off me. Hurry!”

Marc grabbed a large wrench from the glove box, and hit the man in the jaw as hard as he could. The man screamed and fell on the floor unconscious.

“Thanks. The crazy bastard beat the hell out of me. Is Scott okay?”

Marc bent down and checked his pulse. “Yeah, but I think he’ll be out for a while.”

“We have to leave him and get to the junction boxes!” Andrew yelled.

The sirens screamed loudly and the emergency lights flashed red at a high frequency rate. The cooling pipes buckled and spewed dense steam into the tunnel with a menacing hiss, obscuring their vision.

The space-time distortions created an obtuse and foreign environment, which defied normal perception. The tunnel walls bowed inward and the floor appeared to be rolling. The red warning lights refracted off the warped space-time geometry, changing colors and creating weird patterns like multi-colored strobe lights. Steam filled the tunnel way and the pipes continued to hiss more steam out.

People ran blindly through the steam-filled tunnel — scared, screaming and tripping over each other, their movements appearing slow and erratic.

 

“THE SYSTEM WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN EIGHTEEN MINUTES. ALL PERSONNEL MUST VACATE THE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY.”

 

Andrew gave Marc a frantic look. “My senses are really screwed up.”

“Mine, too. Let’s get this power shut down before we freak out. The junction box is about thirty meters ahead.”

“The cart’s fender is jammed into the tire. It’s not going anywhere. We’re going to have to hoof it,” Andrew said.

They made their way to the substation through the hellish nightmare unfolding in the bizarre environs of the tunnel way. Their vision so impaired they weren’t able to see the substation until they were almost on top of it.

“I see it!” Marc yelled out. “Where’s that frigging lock.” He fumbled around for a moment before he found it. He attempted to open it without much success. “I’m having trouble here. I can’t seem to read the numbers. They’re all distorted.”

“Do you need help?”

“I’ll get this bastard open if it’s the last thing I do.”

 

“All tunnel doors are now closing. SELF-DESTRUCT will occur in FIFTEEN minutes.”

Chapter 15

 

The Access Tunnel

 

“Damn, Marc, I hope Teri and Kala are having better luck than we are.”

“Me too. Things aren’t looking too good. I’ve never had so much trouble opening a simple lock.”

He fumbled around for a few more moments and finally got the lock to open. He looked at the panel, wiping his eyes to clear his vision. Just as he opened the circuit breaker panel, a steam line broke under the changing gravitational distortions and severed the main power line going into the box. A surge of electrical energy darted through the junction box and went to ground through Marc’s body. Marc screamed as his body flew across the tunnel. He hit the wall and fell like a limp rag to the tunnel floor.

Andrew’s mouth dropped as he stared at Marc lying in a heap. It took him a minute to regain his composure. He bent down by Marc, rolled him over. He wasn’t breathing but he had a pulse.

There’s nothing more I can do except help Marc. Those boxes are too hot. It’s up to Teri and Kala now. Andrew administered CPR and after a minute, Marc coughed and started to breathe.

 

“THIRTEEN minutes to SELF-DESTRUCT.”

 

People yelled and screamed in terror. Andrew felt the pain of their cries as they ran for their lives, trying to escape the invisible monster determined to kill them.

The high-pressure cooling lines, leading to the superconductors, fought to maintain their integrity. The gravitational tug of war between the wormhole and the mechanical properties of the metal pipes was in a dire confrontation, and the pipes were losing the battle. Andrew looked up as one line surrendered to the fight. It exploded and sent a powerful blast of high-pressure gaseous material into the corridor. The impact of the escaping gas slammed his body into the wall. As he slid limply down the smooth concrete to the floor, he fought the urge to slip into a state of unconsciousness. He was trapped and utterly helpless to do anything — for himself or Marc.

Holy crap, he thought. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein. We made something to help humankind, and now the monster we created is going to kill us.

One by one, the massive steel doors shut through the length of the long tunnel way. The loud metallic sound echoed and reverberated off the walls as each one slammed shut. It was like hearing the sound of nails being driven into his coffin. There was no escape now. He couldn’t do anything to save himself or his colleague, who lay on the floor unconscious. There was nothing more he could do … except wait and hope.

The wormhole stability deteriorated further. The normal Euclidean space in which he lived his life seemed like a bizarre grotesque continuum. The objects around him bent and deformed in weird geometric patterns. Some twisted like corkscrews. Square objects seemed to have rounded edges and moved around erratically.

Emanations from the red warning lights flashed at one-second intervals, shifting in color and bursting into flashes of confusing configurations like a kid’s kaleidoscope. The irritating shrill of the warning horns pounded in his ears, and his head hurt from the assault on his senses. It scared him to see walls swaying and the tunnel floor and ceiling rolling. Andrew wondered if he had been transported into another dimension or to a weird parallel universe — ideas theoretically feasible.

 

“THE FACILITY WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN TWELVE MINUTES.”

 

Andrew felt the cold floor on his ass. The clammy air, saturated with the smell of burnt circuits, assaulted his nose. Huge sparks squirted out of the circuit breaker panels. It was eerie watching the jagged bolts of electrical energy as it hunted for a path to ground. The high frequency screeching sounds and the electrical discharges caused cold shivers to run up and down his spine.

The dense steam, rolling floor, oscillating tunnel walls and ceilings, and pipes moving like swaying snakes freaked him out. Screams of terror reverberated through the tunnel as people desperately sought a way out of the hellish environment. Andrew’s head pounded and his vision clouded from the dense gasses spewing out of the ruptured cooling lines.

The wormhole fought the bonds holding it captive. It was a ravenous Jekyll and Hyde monster with an insatiable appetite with one desire … to consume everything within its purview. The monster broke the chains. Now loose, Hyde was intent on destruction and mayhem.

Andrew tried to make sense of his predicament. He felt like the angel of death was hovering overhead, waiting to take him. He could feel it’s cold icy fingers around his throat.

At least Scott and Marc won’t experience the horror of this. Poor Teri must be terrified. I sure hope Kala helps her through this mess.

Andrew thought back on the events leading up to this catastrophe. I’m either stupid or I screwed up. What did we overlook?

Hopeless and confused, Andrew leaned back against the cold wall and closed his eyes. He needed to sort things out and cope with the possibility he would soon die a painful death

 

Teri feverishly tried to enter the shutdown codes for the system. Her senses were no longer reliable as the space-time continuum continued to change and mutate. Her voice was so distorted she gave up on voice commands. Her only input medium defaulted to the holographic keyboard. The alpha-numerics appeared fuzzy and seemed to move around erratically.

 

“time to SELF-DESTRUCT is ELEVEN minutes.”

 

What is wrong with this system? She thought. I need to hold it together, or we’re all gonna’ die.

 

“FACILITY LOCKDOWN IS NOW IN PLACE. ALL TUNNELS AND PASSAGEWAYS ARE CLOSED.”

 

She panicked. What am I going to do? What can I do?

 

“WARNING, self-destruct will OCCUR IN NINE minutes.”

 

The MCC walls and floors oscillated and the piping bent and deformed. Objects appeared as multiple images, and seemed to move around with a life of their own. Teri tried to override the system, but no joy. She remembered Andrew told her to immediately access Kala if she needed help. Panic consumed her. She fumbled desperately and with some effort, dialed Kala’s access code in her Qtab. Kala immediately appeared next to Teri’s console.

“Have you been following the events here?” Teri asked, her voice quivering badly.

“I’m aware of the situation. What do you want me to do? It looks like all hell is getting ready to break loose.”

“Kala, the operating system has me shut out. I desperately need your help, or we’re all going to die.”

“I understand. I expected your call any microsecond. I almost initiated independent action, but I was afraid I might interfere with you. I think I can get in through the back door. I’ll keep you informed.”

 

“FIVE minutes to sELF-destruct.”

 

“Please hurry!”

“I’m having a brawl with the operating system. It’s trying every trick in the book to shut me out. Very smart, but I’ve figured out a shutdown code. I’m sending it to your Qtab. It’s not a normal shutdown sequence, so it will fool the op system for a while. You’ll have to enter it from the keyboard.”

“Why? I can barely function,” Teri said. My senses are all confused. I’m getting dizzy and disoriented … I’m afraid I’m going to faint.”

“It’s monitoring my actions too close and might intercept the code if it thinks I’m trying to interfere with it. The only way we can pull this off is for me to divert it’s attention while you input the shutdown sequence. If I lose my focus, even for one nanosecond, the operating system will find a way to block off this link. Even talking to you right now jeopardizes our efforts. You have to find a way while I’m fighting off the operating system. I have to go, it’s trying something weird.”

The lives of the team were now in Kala’s hands. It took every ounce of courage Teri could muster to prevent herself from losing it. She sat at her console intimidated, waiting for Kala’s code. The seconds drug by like hours.

 

“Time to self-destruct is THREE minuteS.”

 

It seemed like an eternity before Kala sent the twenty digit alphanumeric code and made a brief appearance on her link.

“Do it now and don’t make any mistakes or the operating system will shut you out. You can’t imagine the fight I’m having. Must go … here it comes again … Arrrahhh! She growled, as she confronted her attacker in cyberspace.”

Teri wiped away the tears streaming down her face and read her Qtab screen. Frustrated and scared, she labored to input the code — digit by digit. The keyboard appeared to be moving in-and-out of focus, numbers, and letters almost impossible to read. Input of each alphanumeric symbol became more arduous. I don’t know if I can do this.

The wormhole instability increased as each second passed and the space–time continuum grew more bizarre. The room degraded into a hellish nightmare of contorted geometries and unnatural sounds — the noise of a monster escaping hell.

 

“TIME TO SELF-DESTRUCT IS ONE MINUTE.”

 

She fought her paranoia and kept entering the code in a deliberate fashion. It was becoming harder to concentrate. Tears clouded her vision and she could barely recognize the alphanumeric symbols. She was terrified she night make a mistake and kill everyone.

 

“Time to self-destruct is TEN seconds and counting down.”

 

Her anxiety increased, fighting her will to maintain her composure. Entry of the shutdown code alphanumeric sequence slowed as she almost lost consciousness. The urge to vomit came back. Her head was spinning and she could barely breathe. She fought her fear and tried to finish the task to save her teammates.

 

“Time to self-destruct is FIVE seconds.”

 

“Time to self-destruct is FOUR seconds.”

 

Teri struggled with her apprehension, fighting her panic, sobbing and trying desperately to enter the remaining digits.

 

“Time to self-DESTRUCT IS THREE seconds.”

 

Terrified and trembling, she wiped the tears from her eyes and entered the final three symbols.

 

“time to self-destruct is TWO seconds.”

 

With a loud grunt and her last once of determination, Teri managed to hit Shift/Ctrl/Enter. She had nothing more to give. She was done for. It was all over.

 

“Time to self-destruct is ONE second. there will be no further ANNOUNCEMENTS.”

 

Teri closed her eyes, and hoped her death would be fast. Time stood still. Now I know the terror of facing death. I’m so sorry I failed … I’ve killed my teammates. She held her breath and waited for the horrible pain of being ripped apart, atom-by-atom.

Chapter 16

 

STL

Mission Control Center

 

“self-destruct SEQUENCE ABORTED. system shutdown in process.”

 

The computer announcement startled Teri. Her whole body jerked as though someone threw cold water on her at the height of a hot day. It took a minute for her to realize she was still alive … to come to her senses. She fell into the console chair, breathed a sigh of relief, placed her hands on her face, and cried.

They had been to the brink and survived. She was grateful and happy to be alive, but also terrified and confused. It was a weird feeling — wanting to cry and laugh at the same time. Composing herself proved arduous. Her emotions did not want to cooperate.

Kala appeared and interrupted her thoughts. “Wow! What a close call! I think the physics need to be tweaked before we turn this thing on again. I’m telling you, the op system almost shut us out. I pulled some fancy tricks to outwit it and give you time. You will not believe this. The shutdown sequence was completed only one millisecond before the op system escaped my trap and closed the door.”

Teri fought back her tears. “Kala, you saved our lives! I’m so happy to hear another voice. I thought we were all goners.”

“It took both of us, and you did a great job. Well, it’s over. We need to round Andrew and the guys up.”

“I’ll start the recovery sequence to open the tunnel doors and let everyone out.”

I hope Daniel’s okay, she thought. He was still unconscious. A small puddle of blood pooled under his head. The entire team had left the two of them, and Kala, to face the monster alone.

“The team deserted you, huh?” Kala quipped. “I don’t know what they were thinking. If we didn’t get the system shut down, there was no escape.”

“I know. They were scared, so they ran away. I can’t fault them, even though Lars disappointed me beyond belief.”

 

The announcement shocked Andrew back to his senses. He still wasn’t sure what they did wrong. He had reviewed everything leading up to this point in time, and there were no clues. It didn’t make sense. Something else was going on. But, what? He hung his head and tears of relief slowly dribbled down his cheeks. He’d never faced the Grim Reaper before. His entire body shook from the trauma, and his nerves tingled.

One thing’s for sure, we are not going forward until we find out what went wrong. I‘m not about let my team face this horror again. I hope Teri’s all right. I’ve never been so scared in my life. If a mole was involved, we need to set some rattraps.

The characteristic metallic bang of the big, steel tunnel doors opening, echoed down the tunnel way. It was the most welcome sound he could imagine. He looked over at Marc, who was moving and groaning loudly.

“Marc, are you okay?”

“Yeah … w-what a jolt. If you can help me up, I think I can walk. I guess we got it shut down in time.”

“No. I think Teri did.”

“You look like hell. That guy really beat you up.”

Andrew touched his eye and let out an, “ouch.” He stood slowly and extended his hand. “Let me help you.”

Andrew pulled Marc to his feet and together they staggered down the tunnel to find Scott.

“I thought we’d bought the farm,” Andrew said, as he brushed the dirt and steam droplets off his forehead with his sleeve. “This was the scariest and weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced. I sure don’t want to go through it again.”

“Nor do I, Pal,” Marc replied.

Steam filled the tunnel, and the electrical circuits continued to arch and spit. It would take the big exhaust fans a while to clear the air. He had no idea of the extent of the damages or how long it would take to make repairs.

“I was out like a light, so I guess I was spared the trauma,” Marc replied, staggering as if he were drunk and struggling to walk straight. “What I did experience will do me for a lifetime. Thanks for staying with me and bringing me back.” After a few more steps, he stopped and leaned against the tunnel wall.

“Are you going to make it? You seem a little shaky.”

“My head’s still spinning and my muscles don’t want to cooperate. I think I can navigate. All I know is I saw a flash of light, felt an enormous painful impact, and blacked out. I vaguely remember coming around when you were giving me CPR.”

“If you feel like you’re going to fall, grab on to me,” Andrew said. “We need to get you checked out as soon as we get to the MCC.”

“I’m good; give me a minute to get my bearings.” Marc looked around, shook his head in disbelief, and said, “From the looks of things, it’s going to take a while to repair the damage. It’s pretty bad.”

“We need to delay the project until we find out what went wrong and fix it. I strongly recommend we don’t reactivate the wormhole until we have hard answers and solid proof our fixes work.”

“No argument here,” Marc said.

They slowly made their way back to the cart. Scott sat up and rubbed a big bump on his head. He grinned at them and said, “Damn, this hurts worse than a spring break hangover. Andrew, you look like you’ve been in a bar fight. Some girl beat you up or what?”

“She was a big girl, Scott,” he said, flashing him a half face grin.

Everyone laughed. The emotional response was a truly welcome relief. Andrew pulled the fender of the cart away from the tire and helped Scott up. They got into the cart and started back down the tunnel towards mission control.

Andrew was anxious to see if Teri was okay. People were sitting and others walked down the tunnel way, so he drove slowly. Wires littered the floor, arching and spitting, and broken pipes were scattered all over. The stench of burning circuits filled the air. Escaping steam, permeating the tunnel, made it hard to see. Andrew’s attacker was gone.

Wonder what happened to the crazy guy who jumped me. We need to get rid of him. I understand he was scared, but he’s too unstable to work on this project. No telling what he might do next. Bastard!

Andrew stopped the cart, jumped out and walked over to Teri, who was attending to Daniel. She had propped his head up, put a compression bandage on his wound, and covered him with a blanket. She stood and looked at him, saying nothing.

Andrew grabbed her in his arms and hugged her. “Thank God you’re all right and thank you for saving our lives. How’s Daniel?”

“He’s going to be fine,” she said, burying her head in his chest and sobbing quietly. They stood there for a few moments before Teri smiled and took a step back. “Daniel needs a couple of stitches. Kala’s the real hero. I couldn’t have done it without her. The operating system went totally nuts and fought her tooth and nail. I can’t even imagine the processes going on in cyberspace.”

“Thank God we have her,” Andrew replied.

“It came down to a single millisecond … one-thousandth of a second! We’re all lucky to be alive. The way the wormhole bent and twisted space, the steam and those unbearably loud horns and lights created the most surreal, confusing and frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s hard to even describe it.”

“We were all scared. Please sit down and rest. Everything’s under control now. Do you need anything?” Andrew asked.

“A couple of strong Margaritas would help,” she said with a giggle hinging on the verge of hysteria.

“We’ve got some people in need of medical assistance. Scott took a hit on the head, and was unconscious almost all the time we were in the tunnel. Marc took a jolt of electricity that damn near killed him. I had to give him CPR. How’s Daniel?”

“He’ll be okay. It appears you need a little help too. Your eyes look like you got punched out.”

“I did, but I’ll live.” He laughed with an “Ouch!” when she touched his eye. Andrew scanned the area and didn’t see any one else in the room. “What happened to Lars?”

Teri gave him an apologetic glance. “He ran out of mission control when the trouble started. I haven’t seen him since.”

I can’t believe the bastard deserted Teri, Andrew thought. I need to keep an eye on Lars. Something’s not right with him.

Teri smiled as Scott and Marc approached. “I’m so happy you guys made it.”

Scott hugged Teri. “Thank you for saving our lives.”

“Your head! Are you okay?” Teri asked.

“I’m fine. I had a close encounter with the tunnel wall,” he replied. “I lost.”

Marc gave her a hug and a polite kiss on the cheek. “Thank you so much, Teri. Excuse me a moment. I need to sit down. I feel like I’m going to pass out. Andrew, please call security and get some help down here.”

Andrew opened a channel on the video monitor and called security. “Please send some medical people down here to attend to the wounded and injured.”

“Right away, doctor. Where’s Dr. Anthony?”

“He’s sitting down. A severe electrical shock almost killed him. He’s going to need assistance.”

“I‘ll have the medics there in five minutes.”

Andrew turned to face the group. “I want everyone to get some medical attention and secure for the rest of the day. I think you all need some down time.”

“We all look like a bunch of under grad students on a three-day drunk in Ft. Lauderdale,” Kimberly cracked.

Michelle ran into the MCC from the tunnel. Her eyes were wild, and she looked like she’d seen a ghost. When she saw Daniel lying on the floor she gasped, “Oh, mi Dios.” She bent down, scooped Daniel into her arms, and kissed his face. “Daniel, mi bebe … hablame!”

Daniel slowly opened his eyes and smiled. “I’m fine. Just took a hit on the head. Good thing I’m hard headed.”

Gracias a Dios, you’re alive.” She stared up at the others. “Guys, what has been going on? I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I thought the world was coming to an end or something. I didn’t know what to do, so I sat down and prayed.”

“The wormhole went unstable and almost destroyed everything,” Andrew explained. “Fortunately, Teri and Kala got it shut down in time.”

“What a horrible experience. I’m so shook up, I’m still shaking,” Michelle said, as she helped Daniel up. “I’m going to take him to the medical center.” She looped Daniel’s arm around her shoulder and they started walking. Daniel was so weak and unstable it was all she could do to keep him upright and moving.

“Michelle, do you want me to help?” Andrew yelled.

“No thanks, I’ve got him. Eso es la mia.”

The medics came in and checked Marc.

“Dr. Anthony, we need to take you to the hospital. The electrical shock you took could have caused severe neurological damage.”

“Okay. I’ll see you guys later. Get some rest,” Marc said, as they carried him out on a stretcher.

“I’m going to hang around for a while to make sure everyone who needs help is tended to. It looks like Sherman’s army marched through this place,” Andrew commented.

Chapter 17

 

Daniel Forrester’s Quarters

STL

 

Michelle helped Daniel back to his quarters after they left the Medical facility. He was still unsteady on his feet. Michelle had never been in Daniel’s apartment.

“Where’s the bedroom?”

“Straight ahead.”

“Chiquita, I’m going to help you get cleaned up and into bed. I don’t think you can make it on your own. I sure don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.”

“You’re probably right. I feel dopey. The shot the Doc gave me after he stitched me up sort of knocked me for a loop. At least I don’t hurt.”

Michelle helped him undress and get in the shower. She had never seen him without clothes before. His nicely sculptured male physique excited her. She turned on the water and adjusted the temperature.

“Wow, it’s too cold,” he yelled as he leaned against the wall and grabbed a towel bar to keep from falling. “Michelle, I’m getting dizzy. I’m sorry, but I’m going to need some help. I feel like I’m going to pass out. My legs are rubbery. I’m about to go down.”

“Hold on, mi bebe, I’m coming in.” Michelle quickly stripped off her clothes and went into the shower to help him. “Hold onto the towel bar. Will you be okay until I get you washed off?”

“I think so. I’m so embarrassed about this. I’m really sorry,” he said. “This whole thing has me so shook up. I know the physics, and I know what could have happened. I wouldn’t say this to anyone else. I was terrified, and I’m still scared to death. I thought we were all going to die.”

“It’s all right, mi amor. I understand. So was I. If this thing has you so spooked, maybe you should leave. Maybe we both should.”

“We can’t. This is where we belong. Besides, Andrew needs us, and I need you.”

The warm water and the silky soap made her hands feel very sensuous to Daniel. It felt especially good as she washed his private parts with the soapy water. He was getting very hard.

What she did for him did not take long. He let out a soft moan and his body jerked involuntarily as he ejaculated. Wow! It’s been a while, she thought.

Daniel’s legs were like rubber as Michelle helped him out of the shower. She dried him off and put him to bed. As she tucked him in she said, “I’m going to stay with you tonight. Where do you keep the extra blankets and pillows? Do you have an extra bathrobe? I’m a bit chilly.”

“Yes, in the closet. You could sleep in here with me. I could keep you warm. You sure wouldn’t need a bathrobe. Besides I love to look at your beautiful body.”

“It would be very nice, sugar, but you’re a big muchacho, so I don’t think the bogie man will get you. Besides, you need rest more than anything else. I’ll check under the bed before I leave.” I want to get in that bed with him so much. He excites me more than any other man ever has. I’m afraid I might be too much for him right now. She took a deep breath, tucked him in, and kissed him on the forehead. She wanted him so bad she had to drag herself from his room. When she got to the door, she turned and said, “Goodnight, mi novio. I would have been devastated if anything happened to you. I love you so much. Call me if you need me, amado.”

“Michelle?”

“Yes, mi amor?”

“I love you, too. Thank you for helping me. What you did was very nice.”

“It was my pleasure, mi bebe. Sleep tight. By the way, you have a beautiful body … all of it.”

“So do you,” he replied.

She smiled, turned out the light, and headed for the couch. Michelle tried to sleep, but tossed and turned. She couldn’t quit thinking about Daniel and was getting very excited. She masturbated and had two huge orgasms, but it didn’t help. Finally, out of frustration, she arose and went back to his bedroom. She entered his door, turned on the light, and said, “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither can I.”

Mi amante, I hope you’re up for this.”

Daniel smiled, pulled back the covers, and extended his hand. Michelle slid the bathrobe off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Her heart pitter-patted as she took his hand and eagerly joined him in his bed.

 

Teri’s Quarters

 

Andrew escorted Teri back to her quarters. When they got to the front door, she turned and wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

“Andrew, I thought I failed and killed everyone. I really expected to die today. I’ve never been so upset in all my life. It was horrible sitting there. Waiting to feel the terrible pain of having your body ripped to pieces. I hope none of us ever have to go through such an ordeal again.”

“If it hadn’t been for you and Kala, everyone would’ve been killed. I’m very proud of you. I think you acted like a real hero. I owe my life to you two. How do you repay someone for saving your life?”

“You can buy me a couple of margaritas the next time we go to dinner.”

They both laughed. It was good to laugh, to relax a bit. Andrew looked deeply into her eyes and slowly and deliberately kissed her on the lips. It was something he wanted to do since the first day he met her. The meaning of that kiss stirred his deepest emotions, and he glowed with the love he felt for her.

Teri wrapped her arms around him and lovingly rubbed the side of his face with her hand. She looked into his eyes, and kissed him tenderly. “Thank you for bringing me home. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She wanted him and was tempted to ask him to stay with her, but decided against it. She wasn’t sure why.

She smiled, went inside, sat down, and cried. She wondered how she had gotten herself into this situation. First, someone tried to kill her, and now she and all her friends almost died. For the first time, she looked around her quarters and felt all alone and vulnerable.

What in the world is next? I wonder if ‘I’d be better off quitting and going to some university to teach. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. If it wasn’t for Andrew, I’d leave tomorrow. She fell on the bed and cried herself to sleep.

 

Andrew’s Quarters

 

Scooter approached Andrew as he walked through the door. “Welcome home, big guy. Kala gave me the scoop. Sure glad you made it. Want a drink?”

“Thanks, Scooter, I could use a couple, and don’t go light on the rum.”

“What about dinner?”

“Surprise me.”

“Coming up.” Scooter turned and went to the kitchen to prepare Andrew’s drink and start dinner.

Andrew heard a fishing show playing on the kitchen monitor. I really have to take a day off and take Scooter fishing. Kala interrupted his thoughts.

“Bro, I’m so pleased you’re okay.”

“Teri told me what you did. I owe my life to you and her. In fact we all do. Thank you.”

“The last thing Mom told me when she sent me to you was, ‘Take care of my baby’.”

Andrew chuckled and shook his head.

“Andrew, the battle with the op system was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Every decision I made had a high probability of error and might have caused all of your deaths. I’m not sure I could have lived with the idea I was responsible for all of your deaths.”

Andrew smiled. “You did a great job. I’ve never doubted your ability to do anything. I have a simple philosophy about what we do.”

“What’s that?”

“When you deal with dangerous technology, you make decisions which, by their very nature, are risky and sometimes life threatening. It’s the nature of the game. You have to accept it if you want to play.”

“Were you scared?”

“I was scared silly.”

Kala giggled and asked, “What happened to your eye?”

“A crazy man jumped on me in the tunnel when I was driving the cart.”

“Does it hurt? It looks bad.”

“As the old cliché goes, only when I laugh,” he remarked.

Scooter came in with Andrew’s drink. “Here you go. Hey, Andrew. Nice shiner. Looks pretty cool. Did you give him the old one-two?”

“He jumped me before I had a chance to do anything. Marc cold-cocked him though. The guy was a total fruitcake.”

Scooter chuckled in his little computerized voice all the way back into the kitchen.

“Hey Scooter, hurry up I’m hungry,” Andrew joked. “Bring me another drink, and make it a stiff one.”

“I’m working faster than a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest. You want fast or good?”

Andrew chuckled, took a sip of his drink, leaned back, and put his feet on the coffee table. This drink sure hits the spot. I needed it.

“Kala, you’ve been in-and-out of the system. Do you have any recommendations as to how we might fix this thing? I don’t want to go through anything like this again. I’m going to delay the project until we get this problem corrected. It’s too dangerous.”

“I absolutely agree.” Kala leaned back in her chair and placed her chin on her closed fist. “I’ve gone through the physics, and compiled a paper to present the recommended modifications to the simulation program gravitational field equations. In addition, the data compression algorithms need improvement, and I have a change for them. Our optimization routine also needs some attention, perhaps a new algorithm. I’ve included my rationale so you guys can decide what to do. The analysis has been downloaded to your Qtab.”

“Thanks, I’ll look it over tomorrow and discuss it with the team.”

“I still haven’t dismissed the idea of a virus component or perhaps a system coding error,” Kala said. “Actually, I’m leaning towards both. Someone hacked us.”

“I think I agree with you. I’ve asked Teri to make this her primary focus and work with you on it.” He finished his drink and asked, “Have you talked with Mom?”

“Of course. As a matter of fact, we’ve enjoyed some very interesting conversations.”

“I’m all ears. Scooter, bring me another one.”

“Hold your horses, Andrew. You thirsty or something?”

“Worse than a sex starved camel coming off a twenty day trip through the desert.”

Chapter 18

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

The next afternoon Andrew walked into the staff conference room. Marc was already there, going over his agenda and drinking a cup of latte.

“Morning, Andrew. Great to be alive, huh?”

“Absolutely. Sure didn’t look good for a while. How do you feel?”

“Okay,” he replied in a subdued tone. “I spent the night in the hospital. They released me this morning. I feel like a pin cushion.” Marc looked at Andrew with a serious expression. “Thanks again for giving me CPR. You saved my life, bud.” He stood up and shook Andrew’s hand. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad it’s over. I never want to face something as crazy again.”

“Ditto.”

“You seem a little down. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Physically … yes. My wife called this morning and chewed me out for not letting her know I was in the hospital. Mary said she feels left out of my life, and if things don’t change, she’s going to file for a divorce. I think I calmed her down. I’ve never seen her so upset.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’ll get it straightened out.”

“Kala gave me a white paper file I plan to release to the team today. It has some recommendations as to the system and software changes we might consider. You should have it on your Qtab.”

Marc sat down, and took a drink of his latte. “Yes, it’s here.” He made a quick scan of the analysis. “This appears to be a great piece of work. I’ll download it to everyone so we can discuss it.”

Andrew nodded, and walked to the buffet table to get a cup of coffee and a roll. He needed caffeine, and the roll was sweet and to his liking. A few minutes later, the team straggled into the conference room. Teri was the last to arrive. Andrew thought she looked a bit worn and stressed. She needs some time off, he thought. He dialed K234 on his Qtab and Kala appeared in the conference room.

“I want to start this meeting by giving special thanks to Teri Martin and Kala,” Marc said. “There’s no doubt we owe them a debt of gratitude. Without their cool nerves in the face of certain death, we would have all died. I’d like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Everyone in the room stood and applauded. The gesture overwhelmed Teri and she blushed. Kala smiled. Andrew gave them both an approving wink.

Marc continued. “Andrew and I have decided to delay the program. We have three serious problems we have to solve before we go any further. First is the system shutdown issue. For some reason, the system shut us out and refused to recognize the normal shutdown sequence. If we hadn’t incorporated a backdoor, we wouldn’t be here discussing this. I see this as our top priority. Andrew has asked Teri and Kala to focus on this and scour the system for a virus component. It’s possible a virus caused a metric change and drove the bandwidth problem. Next, we need to look at the system bandwidth limitations, which I believe led to the instability in the first place. Scott, you made some great changes to the compression algorithms, but we think you need to expand this work. I’d like you to press ahead and make this your top priority.”

“No sweat. I’ll examine the recommendations in the white paper you downloaded. It appears at first blush to be a good solution. It’ll take some time to review the algorithm and simulate it before we commit to code.”

“Daniel, the metrics changed and for no reason. We want you to look at the physics and gravitational field equations to make sure we haven’t made mistakes in the software coding. Please collaborate with Scott and Kala.”

“Sure thing, Marc.”

“Lars, we’d like you to design and code any simulation programs we may need,” Marc said. “Please coordinate your efforts with Teri and Scott as you design it, so we can test once they have their work ready.”

Lars nodded. “I’ll start immediately.”

“One other thing … the technical paper Andrew’s submitted recommends some potential changes to the field equation formulation. Daniel, I want you to spearhead this analysis and get Kimberly’s input. Unless there’s something else we need to discuss, let’s adjourn.”

Andrew turned to Marc and whispered, “Let’s give the team a three-day weekend. They need it. I would also recommend you go home and spend some time with Mary and your kids.”

“Thanks Andrew, I think I will. See everyone Tuesday,” Marc said. “Have a nice three day weekend. You’ve earned it.”

 

Chapter 19

 

Andrew Stevenson’s Quarters

 

The next morning after he got out of bed and showered, Andrew wandered into the living room. Scooter rolled in and gave him his coffee.

“How are you today, Andrew?”

“A little burnt out.”

Kala appeared and said, “You look tired. Are you going to take a little time off?”

“As a matter of fact, I have the weekend off,” he said, as he took a drink. “Hey, good coffee, Scooter.”

“What are your plans?”

“I thought I’d go fishing,” he said, giving Kala a wink.

Kala grinned. She knew what Andrew was thinking. Scooter was in the kitchen.

Scooter heard and re-entered the room as fast as he could. “Andrew, are you really going … serious?”

Andrew and Kala both smiled. “Yes, and you’re going with us.”

“Wowee! This is the coolest thing you could ever do for me!” His little head bounced up and down to show his excitement. “I’ve got fishing lures I’ve made, and I’ve studied all of the great fishing spots around here. I can be ready in thirty minutes. All I have to do is gather up my tackle, and I’m ready to hit the road! Man, am I ready! I’ve dreamed about this day.”

“Where do you want to go?” Andrew asked.

“I’ve investigated all of the good spots, and Ramah Lake is a great bass lake. They have excellent fishing marinas, and the access is easy. It’s only an hour from us.”

“Ramah it is. Do you mind if I call Teri and invite her?”

“Gosh no, I’d like that. I wish Kala could go.”

“I do too, Scooter. I do have an idea though.”

“Thanks for remembering me, guys,” Kala said. She smiled as she adjusted her posture in her chair and brushed her bangs out of the way.

Scooter was so exhilarated he almost ran into the doorframe on the way back into the kitchen. Andrew opened his video link and rang Teri.

She answered in a sleepy voice. “Hello.”

“Good morning, Teri. If you don’t have plans, would you like to go with Scooter, Kala and me to Lake Ramah to do some fishing? We’re planning to camp overnight, so it should be fun sitting around the camp fire and telling scary stories.”

“When are you leaving?”

“In a couple of hours.”

Teri didn’t respond for a moment, and Andrew was afraid she was going to say no.

“I would love to go with you guys. Can I bring the food and snacks?”

“Sure. We’ll have everything else. Pick you up in two hours.” Andrew was thrilled. They hadn’t spent much time alone since their date in Albuquerque.

 

Lake Ramah,

New Mexico

 

Andrew borrowed an STV van from the STL pool. It was equipped with a pick-up platform for Scooter, a satellite link, and a remotely controllable video camera for Kala. The computer pulled the vehicle up to Teri’s quarters. She came out almost as soon as it pulled up to her quarters. Andrew admired her as she walked out to the STV carrying a large bag of food items. She was wearing old jeans, a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and a silly-looking straw hat. She was gorgeous.

“I’m so glad you accepted my invitation. I hope you like to fish and sleep under the stars.”

“I like to fish, and I think it will be fun to sleep out and look at the stars. Hi, Scooter.”

“Hello, Teri. Hey, let’s roll! The bass are waitin’.” He turned on a fishing video and was making a detailed study of the pro’s techniques. “Wait till they tangle with ole Scooter. I’ll show those bass who the man is.”

Teri and Andrew laughed. It felt good to be able to laugh and relax without the worry of their jobs.

“Our boy’s going to have a processor overload before we get him to the lake,” Teri said.

Andrew activated the video camera so Kala could share the ride out with them. “Okay, Kala, are you ready to go?”

“I think I’m as excited as Scooter,” she said, laughing. “I can’t believe you got an STV with a video link. Thanks, I really appreciate it. I’m gonna love this. Hi, Teri. I’m so glad you’re going with us.”

“I am too. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“Take us to Ramah Lake,” Andrew ordered.

The computer activated the levitation system and drove the STV out to head off for a great weekend. The fishing videos were getting Scooter excited. It was easy to tell every time someone hooked a big one. He would let out a squeal. Listening to him was entertainment in itself as he mentored the anglers fishing on the video.

Boy, this drive is so cool and scenic, Andrew thought, as they drove out through the desert. In the distance, magnificent high limestone bluffs capped with green plateaus accentuated the landscape. He could imagine ancient Indians sending smoke signals from the mesas to communicate with each other. Large birds glided overhead, riding the thermals and gracefully soaring up and down the majestic bluffs.

“You know, Teri, this sounds corny, but New Mexico really is an enchanted land. It’s so beautiful and beguiling. I keep hoping to see an Indian on his pony atop one of those mesas.”

“That’s not corny. I agree. I’ve never experienced a place quite like this. Who would have ever thought? Aren’t those big birds awesome?” She took a drink of her morning coffee. “They fly so effortlessly and with such beauty.”

“Hey Kala, what do you think?” Andrew asked.

“I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. Those bluffs were magnificent and the birds are so graceful. Hey Scooter, don’t forget to catch one for me.”

“I’ll catch a lot of ‘em. How big do you want?”

“Oh, a ten pounder will suffice. Think you can do it?”

“Are you kidding! No sweat! The first one I catch will probably be bigger than that.”

 

The computer deactivated the magnetic levitation system and engaged the OGS drive as they pulled into the park. Scooter gave the computer exact directions to the fishing pier with the best bass fishing metrics. His head bounced up and down, and he muttered, “Okay, fish, get ready to be caught. The bass master is here. Hurry, Andrew,” he cried loudly. Scooter could hardly contain his excitement. “We’re here, we’re here, let me out of this contraption. I can’t wait. The big one’s waiting for me!”

The computer opened the door, and Scooter rushed out so fast he almost overshot and stomped on his brakes. As soon as the platform stopped, Scooter darted out with his rod and reel in hand to the pier edge to prepare for the greatest moment of his little “life.”

Andrew and Teri giggled as they unloaded the gear and hauled it to the pier. Scooter dug in his tackle box, trying to choose the right lure. It was fun watching him as he chattered and muttered while he struggled to attach his special lure. The one he made especially for the big fish he planned to catch.

 

Andrew couldn’t help but admire the view, which also included Teri. The weather was mild and the sky a beautiful blue with white billowy clouds floating overhead — in no particular hurry to go anywhere. A scent of water lilies rode the air currents, drifting by his nose with a sweet and pleasing smell. It is a perfect day for fishing. In fact, it’s a perfect day. He glanced at Teri. Just looking at her gave him a warm feeling.

“So what do you think, Teri?”

“It’s absolutely beautiful. The air is so fresh and clean.”

The waters of Lake Ramah were a clear, crystal blue. On the far side of the lake, multicolored limestone bluffs stood like towering giants, rising straight out of the water, reaching for the sky as though they were trying to grab the big fluffy clouds floating overhead. The scene gave Andrew the impression that some master artist had created it. The multitude of contrasting colors and designs gave them a mysterious air and enhanced their natural beauty.

Small ripples danced across the surface of the clear blue waters. The sun’s rays reflected off the ripples, giving them the appearance of sparkling diamonds. The lake was so clear and pure, Andrew saw numerous varieties of fish swimming around, busily going about their daily activities. It was fall and the leaves were turning, dressing the trees in a spectacular myriad of colors and splendor; their images, reflected from the surface of the lake, struck Andrew as a scene begging to be captured on canvas.

Bet mom would love to paint this picture, he thought.

A big bass jumped out of the water to catch a dragonfly. Scooter let out a loud squeal. A beautiful eagle swooped down and expertly grabbed a fish. It gracefully glided to a nearby tree and landed on a limb to enjoy its meal.

“Teri, did you see him?”

“Yes, he’s so pretty. Hope our luck’s as good as his.”

“Hey, to heck with the birds. Did you see the big bass jump out of the water?” Scooter asked. “It’s time to fish. Just watch the ole Bass King!” He cast out his line and the reel immediately backlashed. Scooter’s little head bobbed up and down as he mumbled to himself, trying to undo the mess in his tackle.

Andrew went over to help him. “Don’t feel bad, Scooter. Backlash happens to the best fishermen.”

“Thanks,” he said, his little voice modulated with a sound of disappointment.

It took a few minutes, but they cleared the backlash and Scooter was anxious to cast again.

“Well, let’s try this using a little different technique. Bet Sam Waterman has back lashed a few times,” Scooter said, in a defensive but respectful manner. “All great fisherman experience a few equipment setbacks once in a while.”

“Hey Scooter, I’m waiting for my fish,” Kala teased.

Scooter ignored her. With a little practice, he was casting like a pro, picking the right spots and reeling in like the anglers on the fishing shows he loved so much. His Bass King cap had the bill turned backwards, and he was in his glory. Andrew was pleased the little guy was having so much fun.

Teri sat on a little three-legged stool watching her cork bob up and down, admiring the magnificent scenery. She was more relaxed than Andrew had seen her in some time. It was obvious she didn’t care if she caught anything. The sun reflected off her beautiful hair, giving it a sparkling, golden reddish color. His heart rate increased, and he flushed … every time he looked at her.

Scooter caught quite a few, and like any true bass angler, he released them unharmed back into their environment. “Andrew, didn’t I tell you this was a great fishing lake? Did you see all those whoppers I caught?”

“You’re the man, Scooter.”

“You bet I am. Those bass have met their match. I’m going to text the Bass King himself when I get back.”

 

That evening, they sat around the campfire singing, roasting marshmallows and discussing the ones that got away. Kala even joined the singing. She had a pretty voice. Scooter’s catch got bigger as the night rolled on. It was cute to hear him sing in his little computerized voice. Both Andrew and Teri cracked up listening to Scooter’s rendition of Old McDonald’s farm — especially his donkey and duck imitations. They sounded like an old model A Ford horn — loud, squawky and off key.

The moon was full and the weather mild with a slight chill in the air. Everyone tried to spin the best scary campfire story, including Scooter and Kala, which made things all the more fun.

 

Kala spent the entire night watching the little animals and listening to the interesting night sounds. It was her first time to experience nature and she enjoyed every minute of it. I think I understand why and how much they seem to be enjoying this. Work is good and interesting, she thought, but I now know there’s more to life than just working. You need balance to be fulfilled, and the company of those you love. Wish I could call mom and share this with her. I’ve never been so happy in my life. It’s so wonderful to be alive and share things with your friends.

 

Like clockwork, the sun peeked over the horizon at 6:20 a.m., announcing a new and glorious day. Andrew sat up and saw Scooter getting his gear together. Teri had just opened her eyes. She lay there with her arms crossed behind her head, her ample breasts filling the front of her blue shirt, moving up and down with each breath.

Andrew couldn’t help but admire Teri. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, he thought, even in camp clothes and messy hair. Emotions stirred inside him he did not quite grasp … yet.

“Good morning, Teri. How did you sleep?”

Teri yawned and stretched. “I’ve never slept so well. It was great to get away for a while. I feel wonderful. How about you?”

“I slept like a log. Looks like Scooter’s about ready. Let’s have some breakfast and get him to the pier before he blows a processor.”

After a bathroom stop and breakfast, they headed towards the pier. Scooter made a grand announcement. “I’m gonna catch the biggest fish of the trip using a special lure I designed and tied myself.”

Andrew laughed. “It won’t beat mine, Scooter. Without question, I’ll be the champ,” he said.

“We’ll see,” Scooter shot back. “I’ve got my lucky fishing charm the Bass King, Sam Waterman, sent me. No one’s gonna beat me today.”

“Hey Scooter, you need to catch mine first, I’m still waiting,” Kala said.

Teri giggled. “Yeah Scooter, where’s that fish?”

Andrew could tell she was having a wonderful time. She’s so beautiful, even in dirty blue jeans, and her old faded shirt. The silly straw hat and her fishing pole with a cork floating in the water make her sort of look like a female version of Huckleberry Finn, only no freckles and a lot prettier.

On Scooter’s first cast a monster bass hit his lure. Scooter yelled at the top of his voice and tried to play him without breaking his line.

“I got him, Andrew. I got him. I told you I’d catch a monster. It’s a real stud,” he yelled, as he fought to reel the big guy in.

“Stay with him, Scooter!” Andrew yelled back.

The fish was just as determined to pull Scooter in the water, as Scooter was to land it. Scooter’s rod almost bent double as he battled the big bass. As the fight continued, the fish began to get the upper hand, and Scooter slid towards the pier edge.

Andrew yelled, “Scooter, lock your wheels.”

“They are locked. It’s no good. Oh, nuts! I think I’m gonna take a swim.”

Andrew rushed over and grabbed Scooter at the last instant. His wheels were about to go over the edge and dump him into the water.

“Thanks, Andrew! He almost took me down. Okay dude, you ain’t gonna beat ole Scooter!” He fought with all his might to reel the fish in. After what seemed like an hour-long struggle, the big bass tired, and Scooter finally pulled it in. Teri grabbed her camera so she could photograph the two of them. The fish was a full fifteen pounds.

Andrew looked at Scooter and asked, “Well, are you going to keep him or what?”

Scooter looked at the big bass, which was obviously tired from the battle. “No, Andrew. This guy deserves to be back in the water. He’s a real champion, and has earned his release. I could never deny him his freedom.”

Scooter expertly and carefully removed the hook, held his prize so Kala could see it, and gently let the big bass back into the water. “Goodbye, my friend,” he said. “Thanks for the great fight you put up. You’re a real champion. There’s your fish, Kala.”

“You’re the man, Scooter,” she replied, giggling.

The bass swam out a ways, leaped high out of the water as to say thanks, and dived back into the depths to rest and fight another day.

Teri’s cork went under and her rod bent. “Oh, my! Oh, my!” she yelled. “What do I do?” She jumped up and down and squealed. “Andrew, help me … please! I’m gonna lose him!”

Andrew wrapped his arms around her and assisted her with the cane pole. When the fish came up, they carefully lifted it on the pier. Andrew grabbed her camera and took a picture of Teri holding her prize, a three-pound bass.

Scooter crowed with delight at her catch. “Good show, Teri. It is a whopper! It’s a whopper. What a prize.”

Teri was ecstatic. She put her hands on both sides of Andrew’s face and gave him a long passionate kiss. She looked into his eyes and knew he loved her.

They released her fish and let it back to its’ home in the clear blue waters.

“Bye, bye, little fish. Have a happy life,” she said. “Thank you for the memory.”

 

They sang songs during the drive home, and listened to Scooter’s multiple recollections of his great battle with the monster bass. The further they got from the lake, the bigger the fish he caught became. Teri downloaded the picture she had taken and gave the memory chip to Scooter.

“You know, guys, I think I have a great frame for my picture. I’m not sure where the best place is to hang it,” Scooter said.

“Why not hang it in the kitchen, over the breakfast table?” Andrew replied.

“Sounds like a plan,” Scooter replied.

“You know, Andrew, it’s a shame Daniel and Michelle couldn’t have come with us,” Teri said. “It would have been loads of fun watching Michelle fish.”

“I know, but Daniel wanted to take her to the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque. He told me he was going to pop the question.”

“Really? I can’t wait to talk to Michelle and get all the details,” Teri grinned. “Did Scott say what his plans were?”

“He’s golfing with his pals from Sandia Labs. Five bucks a hole, no less.”

When they got back to STL, they stopped at Teri’s quarters to drop her off. Before she got out, she scooted close to him and smiled.

“I’ve had a crush on you since the first time I saw you at NSTA, but our professional relationship kept me from acting on how I felt. You know, I don’t give a damn anymore.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. After several wet and passionate kisses, he opened her blouse and slid his hand inside, caressing her voluptuous breasts. She enjoyed having his hands on her. She kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, “We still have to work together … you know?” She was panting from desire for him.

Andrew took a deep breath and replied in a low, soft manner, “I love you, Teri, very much.” It was finally dawning on him how much he loved her. How much he needed her.

“I love you, too. What a perfect day.”

She pulled him close and they shared several passionate embraces. Teri was getting so excited she had to back off. She took several deep breaths to try to compose herself and reluctantly got out. It took every ounce of her strength to walk away.

Andrew needed to hold her one more time so he yelled, “Please wait!” He jumped out and ran to her. He embraced her warmly and kissed her. “I couldn’t leave without holding you again. You make me so happy. I love you so much.”

She smiled and kissed him, squeezing him tightly. She wanted him so bad and tried to fight off the impulse of asking him to stay with her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him, turned and walked slowly towards her door. She opened the door and hesitated for a moment. The sexual tension was so intense she tried hard to resist, but her defenses were gone. She turned to face him and said, “Andrew, I want you to stay with me tonight.”

At first, Andrew almost said no, but he loved her so much and wanted her so bad he couldn’t refuse. His heart was racing as he took her hand and followed her into her quarters.

 

He and Scooter arrived at his quarters early the next morning. He couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“Andrew, thank you for making my dream come true. I’ll treasure this trip until the day my programming shuts down.”

“You’re welcome, Scooter. It was my pleasure, and it was great fun.”

“What were you and Teri doing all night?”

“Just visiting.”

“Long visit.”

Andrew spent the day reading reports and talking to Teri on the vid link. He found the woman of his dreams, made Scooter a happy boy and let Kala sample the real world. He loved Teri and no longer cared about NSTAs departmental rule on fraternization within a department. He intended to marry her, if she would have him.

He felt bad when he thought about Kala and her isolation in cyberspace. He loved his little sister, and knew she wanted a life beyond the virtual existence she lived in. He wished he could do something for her, but he didn’t know what to do. To his dismay, he couldn’t figure out a solution to her problem.

 

Kala spoke with Scooter after Andrew fell asleep that night. “You know, I bet it was wonderful to be out in the world feeling and experiencing the wonders around you.”

“It was, Kala. I‘ve never had so much fun. I‘ll never forget it. By the way Andrew and Teri are in love.”

“Really? How do you know?”

“I overheard them say they loved each other and they were kissing.”

“I’m so glad. Andrew needs someone in his life, and Teri’s perfect for him. You know, Scooter, sometimes I feel so confined and alone in cyberspace I feel like crying. I want to feel the sun on my face, and the breeze blowing through my hair. I want to be able to feel and be touched, sit down with my friends and talk, to go to nice restaurants and enjoy good food. To walk along a beautiful parkway or stroll through a park, watch the birds, and smell the flowers— maybe have a man in my life.”

“I didn’t know you were unhappy. I’m so sorry. I wish I could do something to help you. You are my very good friend.”

“Thank you, Scooter. Sometime it helps a girl to have a friend to listen to her.”

I wonder what it’s like to kiss a man and have him hold you in his arms. Well, it won’t be long before I finish implementing my plan. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

Chapter 20

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Bill Mitchel rang in on the video link as Andrew prepared to leave work for the day.

“Andrew, Dr. Tarnak Zontal has arrived from Kandar and will be in Albuquerque tomorrow morning. I’ve sent you his flight information. Did you get it?”

“Yeah. Here it is. Teri and I will pick him up. Anything else I should know about? How do we greet him?”

“No different than anyone else you might meet for the first time. Make him feel welcome. I’ve met him. He’s a nice person and has a good sense of humor. Call if you need anything.”

“All right. I always wanted to meet a being from another world. My dad and I use to have some strong debates over aliens. This is amazing.”

“I agree. By the way, I analyzed your reports on the system issues and proposed changes. I gave copies to Secretary Robinette. It looks like Romanski has been cut off at the pass.”

“Glad to hear it. He’s been nothing but a pain in our ass.”

Bill laughed. “Has he ever. Talk to you later.”

This is going to be interesting. I can’t wait to meet Tarnak. Finally! I’m really going to meet someone from another world. Dad won’t believe this. Well, he was right about Area 51, but he struck out on the alien thing. Guess the debate was a draw after all.

Andrew dialed in K234 on his Qtab and Kala appeared. “Guess what Kala? We’re going to the spaceport to meet an alien from the planet Kandar?”

“Are you serious? What do you know about him? Where is Kandar?”

“I only know he is a physicist on his home planet and his government is sending him to help us with our project. It’s a planet about twenty light years from Earth. To answer your next question, yes, they have had wormhole technology for several hundred years?”

“Do you know what he looks like?”

“No. I’ll fill you in on the details when I get home.”

“Well, we always wondered if life existed elsewhere, and now we know. I can’t wait to meet him. I’m so excited. I wish I could go with you.”

“So do I. You will be able to meet him tomorrow at the office.

”Okay. I’m so excited.”

 

Albuquerque International Spaceport

 

Andrew and Teri waited in the baggage claim area of the Albuquerque spaceport for their visitor. He thought of an old sci-fi movie. Aliens had made friends with Earth and were transporting its people, on spaceships, to visit their planet. The aliens carried a book, which they read continuously throughout the movie entitled, “To Serve Man.” It turned out to be a cookbook.

I hope he’s not carrying one of those books, Andrew thought, laughing silently at his own somewhat active imagination. I never dreamed my first encounter with an extraterrestrial would happen at the Albuquerque Spaceport. What a gas.

Andrew was apprehensive. He glanced at Teri. She fiddled with her purse strap and kept shifting her feet, obviously as pensive as he.

I’m not sure what to say or how to greet him. Hope I don’t screw up.

Passengers began filing into the baggage claim area a few minutes after Tarnak’s flight arrival. Andrew and Teri strained to get their first glimpse of this being from another world. Wondering what he must look like or if he would be friendly or have an aloof personality as some Sci fi movies depicted. Their technology was so far beyond Earth’s, it made Andrew wonder if he would treat them as equals or as some lower fife forms.

I can only imagine the uproar taking place right now if other people knew a visitor from outer space was in this spaceport, Andrew thought.

“Andrew, look! There he is,” Teri grabbed Andrew’s arm, her eyes were wide and mouth slightly open in awe.

“I see him.” Strange, he doesn’t look like an alien. Certainly not like the pictures, they used to show in those old UFO books. No big black eyes and he is wearing clothes. Ha. Pretty tall, too.

Tarnak, as it turned out, was a nice looking, middle-aged man, dressed in a well-tailored three-piece pinstriped business suit. He was about five-ten, trim but muscular, short white hair combed straight back, and clean-shaven. No glasses. His cranium was slightly bigger than normal, but you would never pay much attention to it. The most interesting feature was his eyes. They were the coldest, but nicest, shade of blue Andrew had ever seen. Almost pastel in color.

I wonder how he felt traveling in ancient transportation systems. Travel in his home planet must be completely different. Almost like us going back in time and riding in covered wagons.

After the alien retrieved his bags, he turned and walked towards them. His face showing no emotion.

“Here he comes. I want you be the one to greet him. I’m too freaked out.” Teri laughed nervously. “I know I’ll say something dumb.”

Andrew wasn’t sure what he was going to say either. Bill did say he was very nice, he thought. Well, I hope I don’t say something dumb.

The alien approached, put his bags down, smiled, and introduced himself. “Dr. Stevenson, I’m Tarnak Zontal. It’s my great pleasure to meet you. The pictures Bill Mitchel sent do not do either of you justice … particularly this pretty young lady.” Tarnak stuck his hand in his pocket and stared intensely at Andrew with those cold blue eyes. After a moment, he said, “Okay, since we’ve completed the amenities, take me to your leader … immediately!”

Shocked, Andrew stumbled to reply, and asked, “Wha … uh, what leader?”

Tarnak held his stare for a moment and gave a deep belly laugh. “Bill Mitchel told me this was the usual alien request when they met Earth people in your old science fiction movies. He said you’d get a chuckle out of it.”

Andrew and Teri both laughed. Tarnak had done a good job of putting them on and easing the tension of their meeting.

“Mitchel, huh? I should have known. It’s our pleasure to meet you, and please call me Andrew. This is my assistant program manager, Teri Martin. Do you shake hands when you meet someone?”

“We do indeed.” He extended his hand to both of them.

Andrew felt a bit more comfortable after the initial contact. “We have an STV waiting outside. I’m sure it’ll be much different from what you’re used to. I understand your technology is far superior to ours.”

“This is the most interesting and pleasing assignment I’ve ever received. I’m anxious to experience all aspects of your culture and technology. You’ll get no critiques from me.”

Andrew liked Tarnak right away. Wait ‘til Dad hears about this! Andrew signaled for his STV. A few minutes later, it pulled up and the computer opened the doors.

Jack, his car’s operating system, greeted them. “Hello. Please get in. Where to, Andrew?”

“Just a second, Jack.” Andrew replied.

“Tarnak, I’m not sure what kind of foods you like,” Teri said. “We usually introduce newcomers to the local Southwestern style Mexican food. I think you’ll enjoy it. We know a great restaurant only a few minutes from here.”

“I’ll leave the selection to you. Your city, — Albuquerque, I believe you call it — is quite charming. I hope we’ll have time to see it before I return to Kandar.”

“We’ll put it on the calendar. Take us to Merianos, Jack,” Andrew said.

“Please sit back and enjoy the ride. Traffic is light, so we will be there in a few minutes. Would you like some music?”

“No, Jack, we want to visit.” Andrew was overwhelmed with so many questions; he couldn’t think of where to begin. “Bill Mitchel and Secretary Robinette briefed me, but we still have a lot of questions.”

“I thought you would have a few. I have some for you, also.”

“What’s Kandar like, Dr. Zontal?” Teri asked.

“Tarnak, please, Teri. It’s similar to Earth. We have four seasons and very similar climate conditions. There are five major oceans, and every continental land mass is somewhat different. Like Earth, Kandar is very beautiful.”

“Bill told me you have no standing armies or armed police forces. Has it always been your way?” Andrew asked.

“No I’m sad to say. In ancient times, we were a warring planet. We fought over political, religious and trade disputes, and sometimes because one nation disliked another for whatever reason. Millions died in those senseless disputes.”

“What happened to stop it?” Andrew asked.

“Our weapons became so powerful; our ancestors feared they would destroy the planet and everything on it. After the last devastating worldwide conflict, the nation’s leaders met and decided to disarm. It was the only way to save Kandar. We converted the enormous amounts of money spent on arms to help the poor nations and correct the many problems the planet faced. War turned to quality of life, both for its people and animals.”

“Maybe someday Earth will wake up and do the same,” Teri said. “Wars are so senseless.”

“I’ll bet your transportation is a lot different from ours. Do you use STVs?” Andrew asked.

“Our STVs, or personal transportation capsules — PTCs as we call them — are fully automated and use an antigravity system to not only lift them from the roadway, but propel them through a repulsion-contraction methodology. The PTCs are fully instrumented and constantly communicate with all other vehicles within 1000 meters to resolve right of way conflicts and prevent accidents. As with Earth, we use satellites for navigation. The PTCs automatically integrate into our global communications and entertainment network. We have full computing capabilities, entertainment options, and work collaboration, if we choose, while we are in transit.”

“We have AG systems on our spacecraft, but the energy requirements and size levels are prohibitive for use in our STVs,” Andrew said. “From what I’ve read, it’s the next generation of STVs. Our current technology utilizes a superconducting magnetic levitation system in the cities and highways, and an off grid system or OGS as we call it, when we‘re not on the grid. Crossover is fully automated and hardly noticeable.”

“What kind of technology do you employ,” Tarnak asked.

“We use four independently mounted, high-torque, magnetically driven induction motors to drive the wheels,” Andrew replied. “There all electric. We retired internal combustion engines over a hundred years ago.”

“What’s your basic power source?”

“Multi-spectral Cadmium Sulfide nanowires. What kind of power sources do you use in your PTCs?”

“It’s a small, dark energy reactor unit. It’s quite powerful.”

“Do you use voice control with your PTCs?” Andrew asked, as he took a sip of his drink.

“No. We control and communicate with our PTCs through a mental link-up using a small cerebral appliance. The link also gives us access to communications and entertainment, or data on virtually anything. Video and other information are sent directly to the brain. We internally visualize the information as if we are viewing it on a three dimensional display or simply looking out a window.”

“What about travel to other cities and countries?” Teri asked.

Tarnak smiled and said, “We use teleportation systems to go between cities and for visiting other countries.”

“Where are they located?” Teri asked.

“In terminals similar to your spaceports. When we need to travel, we make reservations and arrive one hour prior to transport time. When we get to the terminal, we check our baggage, and, enter the teleportation chamber. An instant later, we arrive at our destination.

“Does it feel funny or anything? I mean there must be some sensation of being dissembled and reassembled,” Teri remarked.

“For an instant there’s a slight tingling sensation.”

“Are they safe? It’s sort of scary thinking about being transmitted like some radio wave,” Teri said. “What if the machine put your head on backwards?”

Tarnak chuckled and said, “Well, you would look funny. To be candid, it took us over seventy-five years to perfect the technology. Despite a few setbacks early on, it’s now very reliable.”

“Do you use these devices in your starships?” Andrew asked.

“No. Our space crews prefer shuttles. Do not ask me why, they just do. If they wanted them, the Space Agency would be happy to retrofit the fleet.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Jack said. “We’re at Jose Merianos. Where do you want to get out?”

“Drop us at the front door, Jack.”

“Very well. I’ll let you out, and park. Signal me when you’re ready to leave. Enjoy your meal. Welcome to Earth, Dr. Zontal.”

Tarnak chuckled and asked, “How did he know about me?”

“I briefed Jack on the way to the spaceport,” Andrew replied.

 

Merianos Restaurant

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

Merianos was perhaps the most charming and “Mexican” restaurant in Albuquerque — famous for its fajitas and potent margaritas.

“What a charming place. I love the decor,” Tarnak said, looking around at the festive decorations hanging from the ceilings and the walls.

“I’m glad you like it,” Teri replied. “It’s our favorite restaurant.”

A gynoid server showed them to their table and gave them menus. “Let me know when you’re ready,” the gynoid said in a pleasing voice.

“If you’re going to have Mexican food, you must try a margarita.” Teri offered. “They’re traditional drinks with this type of food. Do you have alcoholic beverages at home?”

“We do indeed,” Tarnak replied. “They’re very potent.”

“Well, let’s have the fajitas and a big frozen margarita,” Teri recommended.

Both of the men nodded approval.

“Tarnak, have you been briefed on our project?” Andrew asked.

“I have. Bill Mitchel sent me the reports. I’m fully aware of your stability problem. Bill also gave me a copy of your white paper enumerating the changes you want to make.”

“What’s your opinion?”

“I think they’re right on the money, so to speak — especially the metric change and the new adaptive compression algorithm. I noticed you also think you need a better successive approximation optimization procedure to solve the field equations.”

“The one we have seems adequate, but it doesn’t always yield the best solution under all starting assumptions,” Andrew replied.

“I can help you,” Tarnak said. “I designed an algorithm ten years ago that has proven to be quite effective. If you like, I’ll implement it for you.”

“Thank you. In fact we’d appreciate your help implementing all of the changes we want to make.”

“I’ll be glad to assist you in any way I can. By the way, what’s this virus issue I’ve read about?” Tarnak sampled his drink. “I assume you have antivirus scanners.”

“We have very robust firewalls and antivirus programs,” Andrew replied. “Even so, it’s been a real challenge. We found a virus, but only after it almost destroyed us. We don’t know how it got into the system. When we activated the wormhole, it changed one of our field equation metrics and caused a bandwidth overload. The bandwidth was marginal to begin with and the change pushed it over the cliff. The Wormhole became unstable and almost killed everyone.”

“We’ve added some new antivirus programs and beefed up our firewall.” Teri explained. “We’re hacker proof, so we think it’s the work of an insider. We’re trying to sniff him out. Well, enough shop talk, guys. We’ll be in the office tomorrow. Do you have a family on Kandar?”

“A wife and two boys.”

“Where did you two meet?” Teri asked.

“In college. I was majoring in Physics and Zara was in med school. We married right after we graduated. My boys, five years apart, are almost grown and studying at different universities.”

“What does your wife do?” Teri asked.

“She’s a physician and works at a university medical center doing research on new drugs.”

“Has she ever done any surgery, or has she always been a researcher?” Teri asked.

“Our medicine is quite different. Almost anything we might contract can be cured by medication — a pill if you like.”

“What marvelous technology,” Teri remarked.

“Don’t you have surgeons?” Andrew asked.

“Yes, but virtually all surgery is non-invasive, and if internal repairs are required, we use nanotechnology robots or nanobots as we call them.”

“Really! How do they work?” Teri asked, leaning forward, anxious to hear his response. “My friend Michelle is an expert in nano technology, but it’s not geared towards medical applications.”

Tarnak smiled. “It’s amazing what these nanobots can do. The surgeons preprogram them for each medical procedure. In practice, they inject he little microscopic surgeons. Once in our body, they go to the site of the malady, and make repairs at the cellular level. There are different types of nanobots, each set with different tasks. They communicate and work together to perform the repair. Their activities are like a symphony orchestra, and the surgeon is their conductor. They can completely rebuild any organ, or repair or reconstruct any internal body part.”

“You’re kidding,” Teri said. “How in the world do they rebuild body parts?”

“The nanobots actually modify the DNA sequences of the body’s spare cells, and use these reprogrammed stem cells to repair or rebuild the existing organ. They can even do this in the brain, although it’s far more complex when you deal with neuron structures.”

“How interesting, but how does the surgeon know when the operation is complete, or if it’s going all right?” Andrew asked.

“The patient is put in an instrumented Surgical Encapsulation Chamber. It monitors vitals and provides control and communications with the nanobots.

“Is there any pain with the surgery?” Teri asked.

“No, the SEC transmits a special alpha wave to block pain in the body so no antiseptics or pain masking medications are needed. During surgery, the SEC also gives the surgeon selectable, three-dimensional views of the internal organs, and the procedures being performed on them. He or she can view the organ or part from any angle and literally bore down to the atomic level. If they find it necessary, the surgeon can actually command the nanobots to change what they’re doing.”

“What happens to the nanobots when the surgery’s over?” Andrew asked. “Do they remain in the body?”

“Once the operation’s complete, the surgeon activates external stimuli from the SEC. It jump starts the organ and suspends the nanobots. If the organ is functioning properly, and no other procedure is required, the surgeon sends a termination signal to the nanobots and they decompose. They’re eliminated from the body as any other waste product.”

Teri and Andrew looked at each other and laughed quietly. Earth’s medicine is good, but not on a par with theirs, Andrew thought.

“Do you use nanotechnology in other applications?” Andrew asked. “What about your computer systems?”

“We’ve made extensive use of this technology for several hundred years. In our early computer nanotechnology applications, the circuits manipulated atoms, as opposed to electrons, to perform computational tasks,” Tarnak replied. “Now, we actually emulate the neurons of the brain with atomic scale optical microprocessors, combined with optical interconnects, to implement our systems. Not only do we have the power of the neuron, but also our designs are much more efficient, smaller, and enormously faster. Everything takes place in the quantum domain”

A few minutes later, the waiter brought the food.

“These things smell so good they’re making my mouth water,” Tarnak said. “How do you eat them?”

Andrew and Teri demonstrated how they were prepared for eating.

“Wow, this is good,” Tarnak, said. “The flavor and texture is scrumptious.”

Andrew’s phone rang. “Excuse me, it’s Bill Mitchel. I’ll be right back.”

“Tarnak, try a buttered corn tortilla. You’ll like them.” Teri said. “I am curious. Do all of your people have white hair or are you, as we say on Earth, prematurely white?”

“As young people, we have many different hair colors, as you do. But when we reach our thirties we turn white — something to do with genes.”

“What about the women? Do they do anything to their hair?”

Tarnak laughed and took a sip of his margarita. “Very tasty. Oh, yes, Teri. They love to change hair color and styles.”

After a few minutes, Andrew returned with a serious look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Teri asked.

“Someone planted a bomb in the MCC. Thankfully, a maintenance technician found it before it went off.”

“You’re kidding!” Teri remarked. “Where was it?”

“Someone hid it under a maintenance console in the main computer center. It was a small device, set to go off on third shift. Bill thinks it was only intended to cause enough damage to delay things.”

“Did they catch the bomber?” Tarnak asked.

“No. As Teri said, we’re convinced our saboteur is an insider, and a very smart one. He or she always seems to be a step ahead of us — always knows exactly what we’re doing. Only an insider would have such information. The DOD has several agents working with us on site. Corporate security is the only ones who know who they are.”

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to sabotage our project,” Teri said. “We plan to share it with everyone. So far, the mole’s been content to plant viruses in the system that has just caused delays. We have flights coming up. I sure hope the mole doesn’t decide to plant a bomb in the ship.”

“Marc and I are going to conference with Bill tomorrow to discuss this,” Andrew said. “There’s going to be some big security changes implemented. Well, other than a scare no harm was done … this time,” Andrew replied. “Tomorrow will be an interesting day. By the way Tarnak, we have a flight to Alpha Centauri planned to launch a new deep space telescope.”

“I read about it. I think you’ll find the telescope a very useful investigative tool.”

“I think so, too. I’ve been told you have experience launching deep space telescopes.”

“Yes. I took leave of absences from the university to help out with three of them, and I also took time off to consult on our latest dark energy reactor upgrade programs.”

“I’d like you to go on the flight with us. Sound interesting?” Andrew asked.

“I would never turn down the opportunity of participating in the first flight through a wormhole. Of course I’ll go.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it very much.”

“What kind of homes do you live in?” Teri asked. “Do you all live in high-rise apartments in the cities?”

“Some do and others live in individual dwellings outside our cities. Our homes are completely automated; networked, smart and household robots are common. We try to make each home as independent as possible. We use mind links to communicate with our house hold systems”

“I’d sure like to hear about it,” Teri said, as she buttered her corn tortilla.

“We use food and water synthesizers exclusively, and our roofs are made from a type of sensor designed to furnish all of the home’s power. To conserve energy, we employ adaptive construction materials to restrict bilateral heat transfer. We use force fields as opposed to materials such as glass for our windows. They adapt to sunlight and temperature conditions to provide optimal lighting and minimal energy loss, and they never get dirty. Heating and cooling are supplied by energy converter systems.”

“Perhaps it’s not the nicest thing to discuss over lunch, but what about sewage?” Teri asked as she sampled a chip and took a drink of her margarita.

“Waste is reclaimed, broken down into its molecular components, and the individual molecules reused. It eliminates a lot of infrastructure.”

“Do you have to service your synthesizers? Andrew asked.

“Once a quarter.”

The waiter came and served another round.

“Be careful. These things are potent.” Teri grinned. After two of the mega margaritas, she was beginning to feel good. The Jose Merianos margaritas were living up to their press.

“What kind of foods do your people like?” Teri asked.

“We have a lot of different types of cuisines, but nothing like this. These fajitas are unique. I’d like to sample this again. It is a bit bland compared to our spices. They are quite delicious. I’d love to have a recipe book.”

“I’ll see to it,” Teri volunteered.

Bland? Andrew thought. Man, I bet you’d have to drink a ton of water to put the fire out when you eat their foods. Jalapenos — bland? You know, I wonder why he’s so interested in cookbooks.

Chapter 21

 

STL

Andrew’s Quarters/Cyberspace

 

Kala was excited. Since childhood, she and Andrew believed there was life on other worlds, and now there was tangible proof. Her curiosity was boiling over, and she was eager for Andrew to come home so she could get all of the details. Her nervousness amused her.

She busied herself reviewing the documents from the results of one of her special projects. It had taken her three years to obtain a documented college education. Thanks to on-line degree programs, offered by all major universities, she was able to complete her studies without attending classes. Her Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and Mathematics was finished in one year with a GPA of 4.0 from Stanford. She enrolled at MIT for her double masters in Physics and Mathematics and completed it in one year with a 4.0. Her Master’s thesis included a new twist on solving the singularity issue in Einstein’s general relativity theory, laid the theoretical foundations for a quantum theory of gravity, and provided a pathway to connect general relativity and quantum mechanics. She was proud of that work.

She finished her PhD at MIT, with a 4.0 in Theoretical Physics in two years. She enjoyed the interaction with the professors during her oral examinations and thesis defense. As far as they could tell, the professors were testing a real person. Kala sighed with pleasure. It was so wonderful interacting with the professors. It almost felt as though I was part of everything. Not just some smart computer program restricted to cyberspace.

Kala’s doctoral thesis entailed a new theoretical construct, which finally answered the question of how and why the universe was accelerating. Her thesis presented a new modified theory of physics to describe and understand the strange world of dark matter and dark energy. How it behaved, its measurement, containment, and role in accelerating and expanding the universe. It was a monumental piece of work. She completed her degrees under the name of Sara Anne Stevens.

Now I know what Andrew went through to get his doctorate. It was fun, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to have some of my ideas published. I’m excited, and so close to completing my plan. I can’t wait!

Another thought nibbled through her barriers, one she tried so hard to suppress. It is so wonderful watching Andrew and Teri develop their love for each other. I wish I had a man in my life … oh well things take time and I’m all most there. I can’t wait to find out who that man might be? The thought of having a meaningful relationship, and maybe someday being a mother herself gave her a warm comfortable feeling. A husband and children would be a wonderful way to enjoy and bring meaning to one’s life, she thought.

Chapter 22

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

The Congressional Oversight Subcommittee and their congressional sponsors had tried to shut the project down ever since the wormhole went nuts and almost killed everyone. The team knew they were under the gun and had worked long hours frantically searching for answers — anxious to find the root cause of the near disaster so they could save the program.

The video phone rang the minute Andrew walked into his office. Dr. Romanski, his nemesis from the earlier design reviews, glared at him, not looking any too friendly. The call startled Andrew, but it didn’t surprise him. He’d been expecting Romanski’s call. Here it comes.

“Good morning, Martin. How can I help you?” Andrew asked bracing himself for what he knew was going to be an uncomfortable conversation.

“Stevenson! I told you at the design review if we got wind of any stability problems we would shut you down. I have a report stating the system went unstable and almost killed everyone in the facility. The committee is extremely upset about the state of affairs out there. I think you’ve lost control of the system.”

“We’re trying to find out what went wrong. There’s a couple of technical issues, but the real culprit, I think, was a very cleverly induced virus.”

“Virus or not, if we don’t get some answers soon, I guarantee you and your team are going to be looking for new jobs. You’re going to be the first to go. Understand?” He hung up without saying a word.

“Yes, Martin,” Andrew replied, speaking to a blank screen. He knew Romanski wasn’t bluffing. He would shut them down in a heartbeat, and smile while doing it. I’m going to have to push the team hard. He is serious. I don’t think we have much time left.

 

Marc and Andrew met with their primary investigators to discuss their findings and recommendations — hopefully a solution. The clock was counting down fast and everyone knew it.

“Teri, have you and Kala found anything?” Marc asked.

“We identified the shutout problem. It turned out to be a coding error in the flag logic. Quite a few system conditions could inadvertently trigger this. I recommend we run tests on all flag breaks.” She checked her notes. “There’s another thing,”

“What?” Andrew asked.

“Someone injected a virus into the system. Kala captured it and secured it in a storm chamber to see how it worked. It was designed to cause a change in the gravitational field equations, and force the wormhole solution to be non-optimal, or unstable.”

“Is there any clue as to its origin?” Andrew asked.

“We’ve shut out all outside access to the system. So, as much as I hate to say it, one of our team members is implicated. We don’t know who. I’ve eliminated the virus, and added its definition to our library, but we need to take extreme precautions. Someone’s trying to sabotage the project and they don’t mind killing, if they have to.”

“Teri’s absolutely right,” Daniel added. “Scott and I checked the coding in the wormhole design program and the code was accurate, but a virus changed the code ever so slightly. I don’t know who the creep is, but he or she almost killed us all.”

“At least we found it.” Andrew thought for a moment, before he addressed Kimberly. “Scott, how’s the rewrite of the compression algorithms going?”

“It’s done. I ran simulations and they look great. The new adaptive compression algorithm suggested in Kala’s paper is innovative. You know if we find that traitor who’s been planting those viruses, let’s sic the big girl who beat you up in the tunnel on him.”

Everyone started laughing. Andrew winked at Scott, and looked down to give himself a minute to think and blush unnoticed. “I’m still worried about the virus situation. Particularly since we’ve determined it’s an inside job. I suggest we implement a new procedure to track every system entry, log-on and password authorization regardless of who it is. Also, let’s restrict who can access programs.”

“I’ll have IT work it immediately,” Marc replied. “We have a utility in place, but I’ll make sure the guys beef it up and close any loop holes.” He made notes on his Qtab.

“We also need better algorithms to detect virus infections in the first place,” Andrew said.

“These new viruses employ completely different strategies, so we designed several new scanner programs to help find, isolate, and prevent future occurrences,” Kala replied. “We’ll have the programs coded shortly and run a validation routine. I can’t figure out why anyone would want to sabotage the project. It makes no sense. We plan to make the technology available to the whole world.”

Andrew fiddled with his coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t have a clue either. This smells more like a weapon application all the time. When do you guys think you’ll be ready to test?”

“In two weeks,” Teri responded, sipping her water.

Andrew was reasonably satisfied, but still harbored some concerns. “You know, Marc, I think the virus and system bandwidth limitations caused the instability. However, I’m not convinced it was our only problem. When you read Kala’s white paper in detail, it points out the wormhole design program may have an issue. Even though our successive approximation methodology to the gravitational field equations is adequate, we need to incorporate a new convergence hypothesis. If we do it right, we’ll always have the optimal solution. Otherwise, we design a wormhole without the proper field and matter configurations. Combine that with the bandwidth issue and it could cause instability.”

“Won’t the new compression algorithms solve the entropy problem?” Marc asked, cocking his head to the side, indicating he wanted more clarification.

“If our compression algorithm works, it will ease the bandwidth issue. I’m still convinced we need a new convergence criterion. It’s really the final piece of the puzzle. Moreover, it’s certainly something we need to take a hard look at before we take any unmanned or manned flights. I don’t want anyone killed because we failed due diligence. Tarnak has an algorithm he says will solve this problem for us. I’ll ask him to implement it for us, if you agree.”

“Sounds good to me.” Marc said.

After the meeting, Andrew down linked a report to Bill Mitchel, and went back to his office to call him. He hoped Bill could use the information to help stave off the wolves — Romanski in particular. “Bill, did you get my report?”

“Yes, and it looks good. How long before you can validate your findings?”

“We’ll know for certain in one week. What’s going on with Romanski? He called and read me the riot act.”

“I heard about it. Romanski is trying to shut you down, but Secretary Robinette’s running interference for us. We need some confirmation, and quick. I’m not sure how long we can hold

Romanski off. He’s got several senators on the oversight subcommittee spun up pretty tight.”

“I understand. I’m confident we should have it nailed within a week.”

“I hope so, Andrew. Please keep me informed.”

 

No Earthman had ever ventured through a wormhole to another star. Theory predicted wormholes to be a transient and very unstable creation of the universe: Will-o’-the-wisps that pop in-and-out of existence in the microscopic realm of the space-time continuum. They were of little use, until now.

Andrew studied the system modifications to recap where they were. Kala’s improvements combined with Tarnak’s new optimization algorithm ensured a stable solution to the gravitational field equations. New log-on and change procedures would track and crosscheck all users against any changes, and the offending viruses purged from the system. More robust scanner algorithms rounded out the extensive changes implemented to protect the system. Simulated flight profiles validated travel through the wormhole. Following this, robotic fly through tests were successfully completed. Everything seemed to indicate the system was ready for a manned test.

We’ve done about all we can, Andrew thought. We’ve reviewed the physics, and I think the stability issues are behind us. Teri and Kala’s new anti-virus programs are keeping us clean. It’s one thing to work with the wormhole from an Earth station, but quite another when you’re using it as a conduit to another part of the galaxy. A thousand things could go wrong, and something probably will. I wonder what the mole might pull next. It is like a cat and mouse game … a deadly game of wits with this terrorist. I just hope

Reviewing the mission plan to the Alpha Centauri system made Andrew apprehensive. Activating the wormhole for the first time turned out to be an enormously risky event. The upcoming mission was even more precarious and potentially lethal. The journey to the Alpha Centauri system meant flying a starship through a wormhole to a solar system 4.4 light-years from Earth, possibly exposing them to another virus attack, a supernova, or who knew what?

Andrew assigned Teri, Kala, Lars and several other computer security specialists to a virus defense committee. System access was restricted, and simulation and testing validated the new virus defense programs. Every known hacker technique plus numerous hypothetical methods was tested. It was clearly the most sophisticated system security and anti-virus protection procedures in existence. They had taken every precaution, but Andrew was still dubious.

I wonder if the mole might have let us run those robotic tests to lull us into complacency. It would sure be a good way to entice us to relax our guard. We need to incorporate something into our tracking process the mole can’t fool. I have an idea I need to discuss with Kala.

The wormhole throat was Andrew’s design — a strangely puckered structure, resembling flimsy crushed paper with sinusoidal rings. If a flaw existed in his design, the wormhole would vaporize anything upon entry. Of course, even if one survived the throat and the wormhole stability did not hold during transit, the ship could be lost in space, simply destroyed, or perhaps pushed into another dimension or parallel universe. The successful robotics test helped ease his concern, but there was still nagging doubts —the mole was still on the loose and could strike at any time of his choosing. Andrew hoped his plan would help catch the menace.

The video link ring pulled Andrew from his thoughts. “Andrew, mission plan meeting in the conference room in thirty minutes.”

“Be right there, Marc.”

 

Lars was telling Scott a joke when Andrew entered the conference room. He sat down and listened. Sometimes Lars jokes were funny and others … oh, well.

“Anyway,” Lars continued, “seems like this guy thought a tube of sexual arousal jelly was skin lotion and he rubbed it all over his hands.”

“So what happened?” Scott asked.

“He couldn’t bend his fingers for four hours!” Lars laughed loudly.

Teri, sitting next to Andrew, shook her head. “As I’ve said before, you’re sick, Lars.” The men laughed even harder.

Andrew bit his lip and tried to keep a straight face. Scott and Daniel laughed with the rest of the men.

When the snickers dissipated, Andrew dialed in K234 and Kala appeared in the back of the conference room.

Marc started the meeting. “We’ve completed the robotic fly through tests, and implanted some new very efficient system security measures, so it’s time for a manned flight through the wormhole. Team, we’re going to Proxima Centauri, the third star of the Alpha Centauri system, located 0.23 light-years from its binary neighbors. It’s a red dwarf, or flare star, about 1.5 times the diameter of Jupiter, with five planets comprising its solar system. While its two binary neighbors, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, influence its gravitational well it is not gravitationally bound to them, which accounts for the relative closeness of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system. If successful, we’ll write a new chapter in Earth’s history and open a door to the galaxy for the human race. Andrew, would you like to add something?”

“I would. This has been a difficult and sometimes precarious endeavor. In spite of the obstacles, we’re going to the stars. Secretary Robinette called last night. He said to tell everyone thanks for a job well done and good luck. It’s ten days before launch, so let’s take a look at the mission plan and get ready for our trip.” Andrew sat down and winked at Teri.

“We have three objectives for this mission,” Marc said. “First, we’ll transit through the wormhole to Proxima Centauri to launch a new deep space telescope and a communications satellite. Next, conduct a sensor survey of the planets ending with PC1, the innermost planet of Proxima Centauri. The third and final task is to collect data on a newly discovered nebula, Beluse 321 using Outpost.”

“Seems to me it’s an overly ambitious plan,” Lars remarked.

“You’re right. It is,” Andrew interjected. “However, it gives us the support of the International Astronomical Agency and the International Space Geophysics Agency (ISGA). Since most of the stars in the galaxy are binary systems, the ISGA wants us to survey the planets and collect as much geophysical information as possible within our time constraints. This will give us data on both a binary and ternary star system we’ve never had before. Sure won’t hurt when it comes time to address future support and funding for the project.”

“Who’s on the flight team?” Teri asked.

“Captain John Starling will be the mission commander and Commander Terrence “Knuckles” Malone is the designated pilot. Andrew and Tarnak are joining them as mission specialists,” Marc replied. “Dr. Ivan Podoski, from the Russian Astronomical and Physics Institute, designer of Outpost, is going to oversee the system preparations and activate the system. You’ve all met him. Tarnak is going along as a mission specialist to assist in this task.”

“What’s the launch date?” Lars asked.

“We’ll initiate wormhole synthesis at 0900 on the thirtieth, lift off, and enter the wormhole at 1000 hours. Kala, do you have something to add?”

“Yes. The orbital geometries are going to be very critical. In addition, we need to choose the egress point carefully. You don’t want to get caught in the plasma stream between Alpha Centauri A and B, the two main stars of the system. It could cause great damage to the ship and possibly the crew.”

“I assure you we’ve been very careful to choose our egress point,” Marc explained. “We plan to emerge from the wormhole about 100,000 kilometers from the fifth planetary intercept point of Proxima Centauri to make sure that does not happen.” He paused to take a sip of his coffee. “After emergence, we’ll use PC5 to establish our working orbit. Dr. Podoski, would you please brief us on the orbital docking procedure and activation of Outpost?”

Podoski was a husky, overweight Russian about six feet tall. Bald as a cue ball with friendly blue eyes, he sported a big nose and his trademark black Van Dyke beard. “Thanks, Marc,” he said, with a slight Russian accent. “Once our orbit around PC5 has been achieved, we’ll use the Pegasus to fly Outpost and Sentry to their orbital insertion points. We’ll set Outpost in its orbit first. Once we verify its operational status, we’ll launch the communication satellite. Sentry will act as our relay station with Earth, so communications and control of Outpost can be effected through the wormhole.”

“Doctor, why not communicate with Outpost directly?” one man asked.

“We don’t want to chase Outpost with the wormhole,” Ivan explained. “The astrophysics community has requested we place Outpost in a space referenced orbit at the Lagrange point between the star and PC5. We plan to put Sentry in a stationary polar orbit above the red dwarf star, where it can transmit and receive information, data, and control signals for Outpost from Earth. Using Sentry, the ingress point of the wormhole will always be at a fixed location. Once our system’s in orbit, MCC will reactivate the wormhole and command Outpost, through Sentry, to confirm the system’s operational readiness. With wormhole technology, we can downlink photographic and other sensor information to Earth in almost real-time. Astronomical research will be faster and more complete than ever before. Andrew.”

“Thanks, Ivan. After Outpost and Sentry are securely in orbit, and their operation confirmed, we’ll transit out about 250,000 kilometers from PC5 and command Outpost to collect data on Beluse 321. Astronomers think this young nebula has a star in the process of birthing a new solar system similar to our own, and want to get a snapshot of what’s happening during the birth process. They will follow up with Outpost later when the time slot allocations have been decided and agreed to.”

“Can you say some more about the survey of PC1?” one engineer asked.

“This is the most risky part of our mission plan. The International Space Geophysics Agency wants us to perform a survey of PC1 to assess the geophysical issues associated with planets orbiting so close to a red dwarf star. Since the gravitational well and magnetic fields associated with the ternary sun system is complex and somewhat dynamic, this is a dicey endeavor, and requires precise navigation and control. There is little margin for error. We’ll be on site for twenty-five Earth days and go home as soon as the wormhole is activated.”

“What about the shielding for Orion?” Lars asked. “It seems critical to me. The cosmic radiation around Alpha Centauri has been reported to be very high.”

“Michelle Duvey and her team are almost finished,” Marc replied. “Her new active nano technology shielding should help keep the crew safe. It provides several orders of magnitude better protection against x-ray, gamma radiation and ionized particles. Also, by storing the water between the inner and outer hulls of the starship, the hydrogen atoms in the water, combined with the shielding material, should make the crew safe from radiation”

“She deserves a pat on the back,” Andrew said.

“One final thing,” Marc said. “The EVA team will have to undergo a DNA genetic modification procedure three days before launch.”

“What in the hell is this all about? Borski asked. “I’m not sure I want anyone modifying my DNA structure. I think nature has done a fine job engineering it. Please explain.”

“It’s a simple procedure to enhance the body’s cellular structure to be able to withstand the detrimental effects of cosmic radiation when on short term EVA missions. You spend two boring hours in a med tank. You won’t even be aware we’re doing anything. Afterwards, we check you a couple of times prior to launch.”

“You sure it’s safe?” Borski asked.

“Yes, it’s been tested extensively.”

Even though he hadn’t trained for it, Andrew intended to be a member of the Outpost EVA team. When Marc finished, Andrew raised his hand.

“Yes, Andrew,”

“Marc, I’d like to undergo the DNA procedure.”

“Why?”

“If a member of the team can’t support the EVA, I could be a backup.”

Anthony looked at the Chief Medical Officer who nodded approval. “Okay, Andrew. Call the medical office and make an appointment.”

I’m not sure how I am going to pull this off, but I plan to be a member of the launch team, he thought.

Andrew noticed Marc seemed more distraught than usual and decided to go and talk to him after the meeting. When he got to his door, Marc was taking a drink of scotch — something quite unusual for him. Andrew liked to drink, in fact a lot, but never at work.

“Hey, Marc, can I come in? I want to talk to you.”

Marc took another swig, propped his head on his hand and replied, “Sure, come on in.” He looked like someone had stolen his favorite dog.

“You seem depressed. What’s wrong?”

Marc looked down, rubbed his face, paused a bit, took another drink, and looked at Andrew. “Mary left me and filed for divorce. It’s tearing my guts out. I’ve never been so upset in my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He leaned back in his chair, took another drink, and slammed the bottle on his desk.

“What happened?”

Marc’s face and eyes reflected his pain. He looked like a beaten, worn-out man. “It’s the job. For the last several years, I’ve been here more than home, and Mary’s fed up. When I’m home, she says my mind’s at work. She said she feels like a science widow. I tried to talk to her, but it didn’t do any good. She blew up last weekend, packed up the kids and moved in with her mom. I can’t give up my job, and I don’t want to lose her and my kids. I feel like I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. I love my family so much; I can’t bear to be without them.” Marc hung his head and sobbed.

Andrew was sorry to see Marc, so sad. He walked over and patted Marc on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I know this project has been hell, and the last thing I want is for it to cause family problems. It broke up my relationship with my friend Jamie. Let me know if you need to talk to someone. I’ve never been married, but I am a good listener. I’m so sorry, my friend.”

Marc took a deep breath and pulled himself together. “Sorry for the emotional outbreak. Thanks, Andrew. It’s nice to have a sympathetic ear. I’ll figure it out.”

“Like I said if I can help in any way please let me know.” Andrew patted Marc on the shoulder and left. He wasn’t sure how he could help. Breaking it off with a girlfriend did not compare to the emotional impact of losing a spouse.

~~

It was a week prior to launch when Captain John Starling arrived from the International Space Agency. Andrew noticed him immediately as he entered the bridge of the Orion.

He was not at all what Andrew expected. He had envisioned a muscular, rugged looking man with a square jaw. To the contrary, Captain Starling was tall and slender, with short black hair. He had a Roman nose, neatly trimmed moustache, black sparkling eyes, and a pleasant face. His contributions to the ISA were borne out by the multitude of service ribbons on his dress uniform, crowned by the coveted Space Command Astronaut Wings.

Starling gazed around the bridge, and walked over to Andrew. “Hello, Dr. Stevenson, I’m Captain John Starling. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and this project. It’s my pleasure to meet you. I understand you’ll be our Science Officer on this trip.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrew replied, smiling.

“I’m delighted you’ll be going with us,” the captain said in a pleasant baritone voice.

“Thank you, Captain. By the way, call me Andrew. Everyone does. We’re very pleased to have obtained your services. It wasn’t easy. I pulled some high-level strings to get you. I hope it’s to your liking.”

“I can’t think of any assignment I would rather have. This is going to be a historic trip, and I am pleased you chose me to lead this mission. How’s your familiarity with the science console coming?”

“It’s been a learning process, but I think I’ve got it. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the astronomical laboratory. It’s a first class facility.”

“Wait until you see it in action. I need to talk to you about a concern I have.”

“Sure, how can I help?”

The captain dropped his gaze for a moment to collect his thoughts, and looked Andrew straight in the eyes. “I’ve thought about this survey of PC1. I must say, it’s quite risky … particularly in the Alpha star system. I’d like to have some insurance, in case things go sour on us.”

“Such as?” Andrew asked, his curiosity peaking. Sour?

“I want a navigational tool to provide a three dimensional color coded geometrical model of the entire Alpha Centauri star system, including PC1 and PC5. Of particular importance is a feature showing the orbital corridor around PC1. The orbital position of PC1 will take us precariously close to the dwarf star and the maneuver could be very dicey. I’d also like an associated graphic, or box, which shows our real-time position within the three dimensional corridor looking out in the direction of travel. The topography of the star system’s gravitational and magnetic fields could be somewhat variable, so if you could I’d like to factor those in and have them overlaid in the star system model. Having the capability to see the field topography will help real time maneuvering a lot.”

“What other features do you need?”

“I’d like to have the model presented on the star map, with the box shown in a position to facilitate monitoring of our position within the corridor at all times. The left side of the spatial orientation box should be color coded in red and the right side in green. Port and starboard, you know, with yellow defining the top and bottom of the corridors. I also want the box displayed on the navigator and pilot’s displays with the associated numerical data of position, delta position to each leg of the box, speed, gravitational and magnetic numerics, and altitude. Can you do this?”

“Easy enough. We have an excellent understanding of the orbital mechanics of this star system and its gravitational and magnetic fields, so we shouldn’t have any problem. I’ll ask Tarnak and Kala to assist me. They have extensive orbital modeling and graphical expertise. I’ll set it up to run simultaneously on the holographic and 3D displays in the Astro lab. I had already planned to incorporate a program to measure and display the star system’s magnetic field topography,” Andrew said.

“Thank you. All of these tools will be a helpful aid to make sure we don’t wander out of the PC1 orbital corridor. FYI, I’ve asked Major Tobey, our weapons officer, to install antimatter torpedoes.”

“Why the weapons?” Andrew hadn’t considered the need for such things.

“On previous missions, I’ve been forced to use those weapons against rogue asteroids to save my ship. Have you considered the implications of an asteroid or meteor getting inside the wormhole?”

“I understand,” Andrew said.

“Well, please excuse me. I have many things to do. It was nice to have met you.” The captain smiled and left to begin his pre-flight checkouts.

I sure made the right call asking for this guy. I think our probability of success has just gone up immensely, Andrew thought.

Chapter 23

 

Teri’s Quarters

 

The night before departure, Andrew and Teri were enjoying a quiet evening at her quarters.

“Stereo, please activate disc five, tracks one to fifteen,” Teri ordered. She gave Andrew a concerned look. “I love you very much. I don’t mind saying, I’m worried about this trip. The mole is still on the loose. Who knows what he might try next. If he sabotages the wormhole, all of you could be killed.”

This mole thing frustrated Andrew. They had done everything they could think of to uncover him, but he always seemed to be one-step ahead of them. “We’ve done about all we can to catch this guy and keep him out of the system. However, I’m not going to let him dictate what we do or shut the project down. Eventually, we’ll uncover him. I’m working with Kala on a new technique I think will help us bag this traitor. We call it our rat trap.”

Andrew paused to consider what he wanted to say to Teri. The words needed to be just right. He looked down shyly, and met her gaze. “Teri, I love you with all my heart. I want you to be in my life forever. Will you marry me?” His heart raced as he awaited her answer.

Teri wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, yes, Andrew. Yes, I will marry you. I’m so thrilled and happy you finally asked. I love you so much, my darling.”

He kissed her, trying to show her how much he loved her. For the first time in his life, he felt emotionally complete. He took her left hand. After kissing it, he removed a diamond ring from his pocket and slipped it on her finger.

A tear ran down her cheek. “I’ve never been so happy. I’ve wanted this for such a long time. I can’t wait to tell Michelle. I wonder what Bill Mitchel will say. We are definitely violating NSTA policy.”

“You know, I don’t care what they say or do. I’m going to marry you. If they fire me, fine. I’ll go back to Cal Tech and teach.”

“I don’t think Bill will go to that extreme or even consider it. Actually, I bet he will give us his blessings. What about Kala?”

“She will be ecstatic. I’ll tell her when I get back to my quarters. She talks to our mom every day, so I’m sure she’ll tell her before noon tomorrow.”

“Do you think your folks will approve of me?” Teri asked.

“Honey, my mom, and dad are going to absolutely adore you. You’ll like Mom. She is such a neat woman, and Dad’s a great guy. I honestly have the same worry about your folks.”

“I told my mother some time ago I was in love with you. She knows all about you.” Teri giggled. She kissed him again and gazed lovingly at her new ring. “Are you going to stay with me tonight?”

Andrew smiled. He took her into his arms and they shared a long and passionate kiss. His desire for Teri raged. She wrapped her arms around him and they fell back on the sofa kissing and embracing. Andrew saw the two large mounds in her blouse heaving up and down with each breath. When he could stand it no longer, he unbuttoned her blouse, and discovered, much to his delight, she wore no bra, exposing her voluptuous breasts. He felt their softness, caressed, and kissed them as she rubbed his back, pulling him tighter.

The next morning, after they made love for the second time, she kissed him. “I really enjoyed last night. I love you so much. I can’t wait for our wedding. Maybe Daniel and Michelle will want to do a double. What do you think?”

“I love you too, and I think a double wedding would be terrific.” He kissed her one final time, got out of bed, and started to dress.

“Andrew, please be careful.”

“Don’t worry; this trip’s a walk in the park. I love you, Teri. You’ve made me the happiest man on Earth.”

Teri rose from the bed, letting him see her beautiful body. “I love you, too. Please stay safe.” They kissed several times, fell back into bed, and made love again.

When the afterglow of their lovemaking subsided, Teri said, “You’ve made me very happy. Mrs. Teri Stevenson. I like the sound of it.” She kissed him again.

“Last night was the most special of my life. I’m so happy you accepted my proposal. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d said no.”

Teri laughed. “Well I thought about it,” she teased.

Chapter 24

 

Starship Orion

 

Captain Starling knew his experience, intuition, and intelligence would guide him through any situation. This mission was different … beyond anything he had ever experienced. He couldn’t control the wormhole, and the sling shot maneuver was risky and exacerbated by the dynamic topography of the tri star system’s gravitational well and complex magnetic fields.

I hope the new model Stevenson designed will take some of the risk out of the slingshot. Oh, well, taking risk is why they pay us Space Command people the big bucks. Starling chuckled to himself as he activated the main display screen.

“Mission Control, this is the Orion. All systems are GO, and we’re ready for lift off at your command.”

Marc Anthony, the Mission Control flight director, ran the system metrics board, and scanned all of the preflight system and starship status indicators. Everything looked good for launch. “Orion, this is Mission Control. We’re initiating wormhole synthesis. Standby for liftoff.”

“Roger, Mission Control.”

“Computer, initiate the wormhole.” Marc commanded. “Set end coordinates to Alpha Centauri intercept point beta.” I wish I was with them. This has to be one of the most historic flights in man’s history. I think we’re getting ready to open a door to the exploration of the galaxy for mankind. I’ll never forget this moment as long as I live.

 

“WORKING. WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS INITIATED. ACCESSING TIME AND SPATIAL COORDINATES FOR THE BRIDGE. STARTUP SEQUENCE COMPLETE. DESIGN SIMULATION VALIDATED. SYSTEM FIELD AND MATTER SYNTHESIZERS ON-LINE AND DATA TRANSFER IS IN PROCESS. ALL SYSTEMS GO.”

 

Andrew studied the star map on his science monitor display as it began to twist and contort to create the Einstein-Rosen Bridge between Earth and PC5. The star map showed Orion at the throat of the wormhole. Andrew’s stomach churned. He took several deep breaths to try to calm down. Everyone else on the bridge seemed to be at ease, busy checking systems status and other important details. If they were nervous, it sure didn’t show. A small blinking message on his console caught his attention. It was Kala.

 

‘Good luck, Andrew. We’re here if you need us. Validated both models. By the way, I added an additional component. K.’

 

‘Thank you. Got anything for acute butterflies? Ha! Ha.’

 

Andrew reviewed Kala’s modification to the model. How interesting. Her idea was straight out of basic magnetic theory. Run a current through the hull of the ship. By adjusting the orientation of the vessel, use the magnetic field of the star to create a strong outward expulsion force against the vessel. She had also included a method to couple the power system through the hull and verified that the electronics systems isolators were adequate. The final part of her calculations checked the structural capability of the hull to withstand the overall G load, of the magnetic and gravitational forces acting on it as part of the overall escape model. Very cleaver, he thought. I’ll send this to the captain for his review and disposition.

Awaiting lift off, he thought back on the journey they had been through to get to this point. This was his lifelong dream. He was scared, excited, nervous, and thrilled, all at the same time. He had never experienced such an adrenalin rush. I wish Kala could be on-board. Well, I have a nagging feeling we may need her at MCC.

Entering the wormhole wasn’t the only risk his team would face. The design was sound, and they had successfully completed two fly-through tests with robotic ships without incident. Nevertheless, viruses still nagged him despite the extensive new scanner algorithms and safeguards. I wonder if the mole will strike again. Proving out a new and dangerous technology is difficult enough, but having to cope with saboteurs at the same time is a bit trying. It’s a miracle I don’t have ulcers.

The computer broke his thoughts as it announced:

 

“THE EINSTEIN-ROSEN BRIDGE IS IN PLACE CONNECTING EARTH WITH ALPHA CENTAURI FIVE. END-POINT COORDINATES VERIFIED. THE WORMHOLE IS STABLE. ALL SYSTEMS ARE READY FOR LAUNCH.”

 

Tarnak was at his console, making final checks on ship sensor status and wormhole metrics. He turned to look at Andrew. “You know, wormhole travel is not new to me, but this is quite different. It’s one thing going through a wormhole using technology proven for over five hundred years — quite another using it for the first time. I’m excited and nervous to be a part of such a phenomenal event in Earth’s history.”

“So am I and I don’t mind admitting I’m a bit nervous too,” Andrew said.

“I think I know how our ancestors must have felt when they ventured through the wormhole for the first time. I’ve never been this nervous or excited. I’ll always treasure this experience. My boys will delight in hearing this story when I get home,” Tarnak said.

Marc appeared on the main display. “Captain, we’ve synchronized all navigation, and request downlink of your main display and ship systems data. The star map has been validated and uplinked to you. It should be displayed now.”

“Roger, flight.” Starling replied. “We see the map and have initiated downlink of all display screens. Ship status info will be telemetered real-time.”

“Thank you, Orion. You are now cleared for launch.”

“Roger, flight.” Captain Starling gave the final launch order. “Knuckles … take us in. Give me antigravity level three, quarter thrusters, and activate the inertial dampers (IDs.) I want to go in dead center. Switch the forward and rear views on the main screens, and change the MCC to the utility screen.”

“Aye, Captain. AGL three, quarter thrusters and IDs set in,” he said in a slightly gravelly voice. “Good to be back in the saddle, Captain.” Knuckles experience piloting starships was evident by the ease and precision he employed to lift the ship out of the launch port and steer it towards the wormhole’s throat structure.

Andrew sat there thinking, I’m positive the design is right on the money. We tested the stability exhaustively; and the robotic ships went through without incident, so we should be okay. I think … I hope we’re ready. It’s a good thing I don’t bite my nails. I wouldn’t have any left.

The Orion buffeted violently and vibrated as the ship entered the throat of the wormhole. Andrew tightened his restraining straps. Electrostatic emissions, similar to lightning bolts, were exchanged between the hull and the wormhole structure. He had not expected this type of interaction. I hope this quits pretty quick. I’ve never modeled those phenomena. I hate this kind of uncertainty.

The buffeting grew worse as they transited through the throat. Andrew’s anxiety built with each jolt he felt. The space-time contortions tossed the big ship around like a small plane flying through a bad storm. After several gut wrenching minutes, the Orion steadied, and its flight path smoothed out. Andrew took a deep breath. They had survived the entry.

Think I know how we can smooth this out. I’ll correct the model equations when we return.

“Mission Control, this is Orion, we’ve entered the wormhole, and we’re now proceeding towards the Oort cloud.”

“Roger, Captain. Good luck,” Marc replied.

“Knuckles, turn off the antigravity system, set internal gravity level one and give me half reaction power. Set main screen to forward view.”

“Aye, Captain. AG off, gravity level one set and half reaction power coming up.”

Orion, we’re tracking you. Are we in sync on the star maps?”

“Roger, MCC. Everything looks GO here,” the captain reported.

The starship displays provided a 360-degree view of the space surrounding them. The Earth, in the rear scene was getting smaller and smaller. Pictures were one thing, but seeing it unfold from space, even viewed through the wormhole’s distortion effects, were special. They entered the Oort cloud — the cloud-like formation of icy debris and gasses surrounding the outer fringes of the solar system. Andrew thought it looked like a sea of icebergs. It’s a shame we couldn’t figure out some way to move this ice to Mars. It would sure benefit the colonization efforts going on there.

They cleared the Oort cloud and the captain announced, “Stand by for full reaction power.”

Starling did a final check of the status boards and studied the star map. “Knuckles, take us to full reaction power.”

“Aye, aye, Sir. Going to full reaction power.”

The ship’s acceleration began to have a strange visual effect on the observed space-time continuum. The stars clustered around the middle of the main display, and streaks of light started moving in a semi-circular pattern towards the sides of the screen. The interior wormhole structure appeared weird and irregular shaped. Andrew looked ahead through the deformed and compressed time-space continuum. Space appeared rounded and curving. As their speed stabilized, the star map leveled out. The star’s positions were strangely compressed and oriented in a weird semi-circular pattern around the geometric structure created by the wormhole.

 

Andrew finished inputting the parameters for a planned time dilation experiment and initiated computer analysis. He leaned back in his chair, and looked over at Knuckles. He thought Knuckles was an interesting and very friendly person. He was quite muscular, five feet eleven, with short, brown hair and brown eyes. A big scar over the left eyebrow, with stitch marks, accentuated his face. His jaw was square and rugged with a cleft in the middle. The nose was rather flat, and looked like it had been broken several times.

Knuckles had paid his way through the space academy as a bare-knuckle prizefighter. He looks like a Knuckles, Andrew thought. He liked the guy. The man’s service record was excellent, with years devoted to space exploration. Decorations for bravery and commendations were definitely not his short suit. It was only a matter of time before he got his own starship command.

Tarnak arose from his station and approached the Science Console. “Well, Andrew, how is the time dilation experiment going?”

“I’ve already synced up the atomic clock with Earth, and I’m running a time analysis through the computer. It’ll be interesting to check the time dilation phenomena within a wormhole.”

Tarnak smiled politely. “Yes, it will be. Wormholes can have some strange effects on time. By the way, are you ready for some lunch? It’s been awhile since we ate.”

“I need to discuss the escape model I sent to the captain. Wait for me.”

“So what did the Captain say about our model?” Tarnak asked, when Andrew returned.

“He was dubious we would need it, but he agreed to go ahead with the implementation. Let’s go eat.”

 

The time dilation experiment was complete and Andrew was reviewing the computer’s summary report.

“Well, Andrew, what’s the smile for?” Tarnak asked. “Did things turn out as you expected?”

“Yes, I’m pleased to say. My analysis indicates the results of our test are in complete agreement with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Guess I shouldn’t have expected anything less. I don’t know why we still call this a theory. Quite a few investigators have conducted experiments that have validated it. The meson particle experiment was a classic validation of time dilation.”

“We have our own theories of relativity on Kandar and, through years of testing and application, we accept them as verifiable laws of physics. I suspect your people will ultimately change their view also.”

 

The captain came on the intercom. “All hands man your duty stations. We’ll be arriving at PC5 in one hour. Knuckles, take us to quarter reaction.”

“Aye, Captain … quarter reaction.”

The end of the wormhole loomed straight ahead. Andrew thought is It was strange, to say the least. It was sort of like looking out of a weird fish eye lens. He sent a message to Kala and Teri.

 

‘We are about to egress the wormhole. Wish us luck with the telescope. A.’

 

Kala and Teri both replied.

 

‘We’re with you, Tiger. Good luck. KnT.’

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve made the first successful trip through a wormhole and survived. Congratulations to the Mission Control team and the Orion crew for a job well done,” the captain announced. “Mission Control, I’m going to put Orion into an orbit around PC5 and make preparations to launch Outpost.”

“Roger, Orion,” Marc replied. “Congratulations. Everyone here is ecstatic. We’ll reinitiate the wormhole and talk to you again, as scheduled, after Outposts in orbit.”

“Knuckles, park us in a station keeping orbit 100,000 kilometers above PC5.”

 

Andrew was fascinated with topography of PC5. The gravitational tug of its parent star had created a terrain scared and broken with crevices running over the surface for miles. Deep craters and other pockmarks — covering large parts of its surface — indicated there had been enormous meteor strikes creating a dead, ugly, barren world.

Well, the easy part’s over, Andrew thought. I don’t know why, but I have an uneasy feeling about this launch.

Chapter 25

 

Starship Orion

In orbit above PC5

Proxima Centauri

 

“Dr. Podoski, this is Captain Starling. Please finalize preparations the launch Outpost and Sentry and let us know when you’re ready. Tex, this is the captain. Please provide Dr. Podoski with any engineering help he needs to complete his task.”

“Aye, Captain,” the Chief Engineer, responded. “I’ve already assigned four engineers to help him.”

“Thank you.”

Away missions always made the captain nervous. Too many things could go wrong and usually did.

 

Andrew completed his data analysis and hurried down to cargo bay 3. Outpost was the most advanced telescope ever designed by man. The data sheets indicated its sensors spanned the complete electromagnetic spectrum, including visual, infrared, X ray, Gamma ray, RF, cosmic particle detectors and the latest sensor fusion processors. The technology suite also featured a new planet detector, sun tracker, and star-tracking cameras. The optics was adaptable, and any optical issue readily compensated in real-time by the on board super computer. The power system would last one hundred years without service.

The PR on Outpost is right on the money, Andrew thought. The user demand will be so high the Astrophysics community will have to form a prioritization committee to control the time slots.

Outpost and Sentry were already loaded in the Pegasus when Andrew walked into the cargo bay. The launch team was busy making the last minute preparations for the planned orbital insertion.

“Hey, Ivan, how’s it going?” Andrew asked.

“I think we’re about ready to put these two bad boys to work.”

Andrew had an overwhelming desire to participate in the launch. He fretted for a moment before he spoke. “Ivan, I’ve been thinking. I’d like to go with you in the shuttle.”

Ivan turned and replied. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be on-board. I know many congressional people thought we were trying to horn in on your project and complicate matters. I’m also aware you and Bill Mitchel convinced Secretary Robinette Outpost would complement your efforts. You did a great favor for us. Can you go with us? Of course! As a matter of curiosity, are you EVA (extra vehicular activity) certified?”

“I am.” Andrew smiled, nodded, and winked at Ivan.

“Welcome to the team.”

“Thank you.” All right, I can’t wait, Andrew thought.

 

The captain held the prelaunch meeting in his conference room. “Ivan, what’s the status?”

“The birds are loaded and ready to fly. We’ve run complete diagnostics on all systems and we’re ready for launch.”

“All right. I understand Dr. Stevenson is going with you.”

“Yes, Captain,” Ivan, replied. “Andrew sponsored our involvement, and we think he’s earned the right to participate.”

The captain smiled and nodded agreement. “So do I. Okay, the launch team will consist of Dr. Stevenson, Dr. Podoski and Lt. Jones. I’ve asked Knuckles to pilot the Pegasus. He participated in several satellite and telescope orbital insertions, including the Cosmos XV, so I think he’ll provide excellent support. The orbital mechanics and details for both systems are in the computer. Ivan will be the away team commander. Andrew, although it’s not planned, have you had any EVA experience?”

Andrew grinned. “Not in space. This is my first trip. I did spend four weeks training in the International Space Agency (ISA) antigravity facility during the early stages of the wormhole project. I understand the mechanics of working in zero gravity and using EVA suits, but I’m no expert. I do have an EVA certification. Also, I underwent the DNA procedure before we left.”

“I think you’re qualified. Well, gentlemen, good luck, and please know we’ll be here to back you up.”

 

Pegasus

The Space Truck

 

Orion, this is Pegasus. We’re ready for launch. Please open the hanger bay doors,” Knuckles requested.

“Roger, Pegasus. We’re evacuating hanger bay 3 now. Stand by for launch.”

Andrew heard the loud thumping noise of the huge pumps as they evacuated the oxygen from the hanger bay. Green lights flashed on the pilot’s console indicting GO.

The computer announced:

 

“ATTENTION ALL PERSONNEL OXYGEN HAS BEEN EVACUATED FROM. HANGER BAY 3. DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT AN ENVIRONMENTAL SUIT.”

 

Andrew watched the big doors open exposing an ominous black sky permeated with thousands of pinpoints of light.

What an awesome sight, he thought. So many stars. It’s beautiful.

Knuckles manipulated the controls and the Pegasus lifted off the hanger bay deck and headed at exit speed — toward the open hanger bay door. Andrew could see PC5 as well as the red dwarf sun as they exited the ship. It was easy to identify Proxima Centauries’ two neighbors, Alpha Centauri A and B, only 0.2 light years away.

The ride to the orbital insertion point was smooth and efficient. Knuckles looped around PC5, and maneuvered the craft into the Lagrange point, Outpost’s new home. Ivan had told Andrew they chose the Lagrange point because it represented the optimum orbit. Since the gravitational pull between the star and the planet were the same at the Lagrange point, they could sustain the orbit with minimal energy, and easily maintain a constant position between the star and PC5. The spatial orientation they chose would give them the optimal observation angles. Using Outpost’s tri axial thrusters, they could change the look angle, as directed, from Earth via Sentry.

As they approached the launch position, Knuckles announced, “Opening the cargo bay doors. Please let me know when you’re ready to release Outpost.”

Ivan was at the control console running last minute checks. “Orion, this is Pegasus,” he said. “We’ve arrived at the orbital insertion point and all systems are responding correctly. Request permission to launch.”

Pegasus, this is Orion. We acknowledge and concur with your readings. Proceed at your convenience.”

“Roger, Orion.”

Knuckles activated the cradle holding Outpost in place. The cradle slowly elevated to its incline of 45 degrees. He tapped the thrusters to fine-tune his velocity, and released the cradle’s electro mechanical bolts.

Outpost is free,” he announced.

“Roger. Let’s put this bad boy in orbit.”

Ivan activated Outpost’s tri axial thrusters and the immense telescope lifted itself out of the cargo bay, away from its resting place. Once clear, he transferred control to Outpost’s Attitude Determination and Control System (ADCS). The ADCS took over and — as directed by its on-board computer — precisely positioned the telescope to its correct spatial orientation.

Outpost is stable and in position,” Ivan announced. “Readings look good.”

“Moving to clear Outpost,” Knuckles reported. He maneuvered Pegasus away from Outpost to prevent Pegasus from acting as a gravity tractor, which could influence the orbit. “Pegasus is clear.”

Tarnak issued the final commands from the Orion, and after a few more bursts from its thrusters, Outpost completed its final orientation maneuver, at home in orbit and ready to commence work. The teams on the Pegasus and the Orion cheered.

“I feel like a proud new parent,” Ivan said.

“I think everyone does. Congratulations on a job well done,” Andrew said.

“Thanks. I’ve spent ten years designing Outpost. This was a lifetime achievement. It’s nice to savor this, even if only for a moment.”

Andrew smiled and nodded his understanding.

Pegasus, Outpost’s orbit is stable and we’re receiving GO data for all on-board systems,” Tarnak reported. “The ADCS is responding to all commands. All sensors are calibrated and working. The star tracker, planet finder camera, sun tracker, and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) metrics are all black. Good job.”

“I think we’re ready for Sentry,” Ivan replied.

Pegasus, this is Captain Starling. The whole Orion team wants to congratulate you for a job well done. Please proceed with Sentry launch and good luck.”

“Thanks, Orion,” Ivan replied. “We’re proceeding to the orbital insertion point. We’ll notify you as soon as we get into position.”

At Ivan’s nod, Knuckles flew Pegasus to the orbital insertion point, which would allow Sentry to maintain a communication link with both Outpost and the predetermined activation bearing of the wormhole central axis. The launch went like clockwork. As Sentry settled into its new stationary polar orbit above the star, Ivan made a final tweak of its position with Sentry’s Reaction Control System thrusters. The ADCS then took over and the task was complete.

Orion, Outpost, and Sentry are talking,” Ivan reported. “The new system’s in place and working like a hose.”

“Like a what?” Andrew asked.

“It’s an old Russian saying,” Ivan responded. “It loses something in translation.”

Orion concurs,” Tarnak said. “What’s a hose?”

“I’ll explain later,” Ivan replied, chuckling at their responses.

Orion, this is Pegasus. We’re returning to the mother ship.”

“Roger, Pegasus. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Orion. See you on-board.”

Orion, this is the MCC,” Marc said. “We’re receiving visuals from Outpost, and Sentry is rock solid. Good work. We’re going to work with Outpost, as scheduled, before we deactivate the wormhole.”

Andrew gave Ivan the thumbs up.

“Let’s go home, Knuckles,” Ivan said. “It’s been a great day at the office.”

Andrew was pleased. Everything had gone so well. Just like clockwork, he thought.

Knuckles eased the throttle forward and with a simple banking maneuver, headed back to the Orion. As they approached the starship, the hanger doors opened and Knuckles flew the shuttle in for a soft landing. The doors slammed shut with a soft, metallic bang. The pumps hissed as they routed oxygen back into the hanger bay. A green light blinked on, and the computer announced:

 

“ALL CLEAR. OXYGEN levels IN HANGER BAY 3 RESTORED. it is safe to ENTER WITHOUT AN ENVIRONMENTAL SUIT. ALL PEGASUS PERSONNEL MAY NOW disembarK.”

 

Starship Orion

 

It was good to be back on the ship. As soon as they arrived on the bridge, Ivan approached the captain.

“Captain, we need to run a final check on Sentry and Outpost.”

“Good idea, Doctor, please proceed.”

Tarnak came over to greet them. “Welcome back, guys. Looks like a perfect mission.”

“I hope so,” Andrew replied. “We’ll know in a few minutes.”

The three sat down at the science console, and after numerous attempts, were unable to get Sentry to respond. Tarnak ran through the diagnostics. “None of the systems are responding!”

Ivan glanced at Starling with a worried look. “Captain, Outpost is responding to our query, but Sentry appears to be dead.”

“Have you tried the diagnostic routines?”

“Tarnak completed all of the tests. It was working when we put it in orbit.”

Andrew reluctantly said the obvious. “We have to go back out there.” I knew things were going too smooth.

“I know,” Ivan agreed.

Tarnak walked up to them. “Guys, I’ll go along, if you want. I’m EVA certified.”

Andrew thought for a moment. “I’d feel much more comfortable if you stayed here to back us up. There’s no telling what we’re going to run into.”

Andrew was nervous about going back to the satellite. Without doubt, it was going to include an EVA. The closest he had ever come was in an antigravity chamber on Earth. This was the real thing and the thought of it made him doubt his readiness.

Chapter 26

 

The Pegasus

 

Knuckles was in the pilot seat when they entered the shuttle. “Ready for another joy ride?”

“Not really,” Andrew replied. I’m not ready to do an EVA. I hope the training I took stuck.

EVA missions were always risky, and Andrew fought to control his nerves. It was one thing to work in an AG facility on Earth, and quite another four and a half light-years in space with no simple stop exercise command if anything went wrong.

“Okay, team. We’re here. Suit up and let me know when you’re ready to EVA,” Knuckles said. “Please keep in constant touch and be careful. It’s a long walk home.”

Andrew’s hands were shaking and he was having difficulty getting into his suit.

“Andrew, this is no different from the AG facility,” Ivan said. “You’re a scuba diver, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Remember your training? Stop, think, and act? The same principle applies here. Relax and your training will take over and guide you through this. We need to stay in constant communication.”

“I guess my nervousness shows.”

Ivan patted him on the shoulder. “I’d be worried about you if you didn’t feel a bit apprehensive.”

“Thanks,” Andrew replied with a shallow grin.

Each man checked the other’s suit connections, oxygen gages, and power levels.

“Ready to go, Andrew? How about you, Lieutenant?”

“I guess so. What do you think the problem is, Doctor?”

“I’m not sure. I bet it has to do with the antenna power leads. We may have taken a micrometeorite hit. I suggest we check those first. Is everyone else ready?” At their affirmative responses, he went on. “Well, let’s go. Computer, prepare to open outer egress door. Knuckles, we’re going for a walk.”

The computer initiated the pumping sequence, and the green egress light came on. Ivan pushed the egress button, and the hatch opened to the blackness of space.

Andrew stared, without blinking, at the vast, ominous void filled with innumerable stars. He felt intimidated, small, and vulnerable. His pulse rate increased and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow. The AG facility training was one thing … but this. The black void was scarier than he could have ever imagined.

What a way to get ones first EVA experience, he thought. I feel like I’m stepping into the mouth of some giant monster. He laughed at his reaction to the EVA.

Ivan stepped out, gently activated his thrusters, and moved forward. The lieutenant followed. Their EVA experience was obvious. Andrew’s pulse raced as he pushed himself through the hatch. The enormity of it all was almost overwhelming. The only redeeming feature was the plethora of pinpoints of light and the planet beneath them, although his paranoia made him think he was going to fall. The first step was a big one, and he felt better once he was floating freely.

No training had prepared Andrew for this. The quiet blackness, with no up or down disoriented him. The lack of gravity triggered queasiness. For a moment, he thought he might throw up, but worked his way through it. He still had the crazy idea he might fall and the idea astounded him. He remembered: stop, think, and act. It helped stabilize his emotions. Andrew’s first jerky attempt using the thrusters caused him to oscillate and move erratically. With a little practice, he learned to operate the suit pack thrusters with more finesse to control his orientation. He hoped no one had seen his first clumsy attempts to use the suit pack.

He focused on Sentry to help the disorientation. Ivan’s movements were fluidic and precise. Ivan activated his thrusters and slowed his approach, stopping at the large antenna. He waived the lieutenant to the other side. “Lieutenant, check the back side of the antenna, and see if we’ve taken a hit or something,” he commanded through the helmet comm link.

“Roger, Doc.”

Andrew was getting better at controlling his movements, but he still felt a bit foolish at his somewhat erratic control of the suit pack thrusters. Despite his lack of precision, he managed to come along side Ivan without incident or bumping headlong into the antenna.

“Not too bad, Andrew. You did better than I on my first time. Don’t worry. By the time we finish today, you’ll be a pro. Lieutenant, see any damage?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“This is nothing like the AG facility. If anything goes wrong there’s a reset button to restart the exercise,” Andrew commented.

“Your team members are the reset button. If we work together, we’ll be fine. Now, let’s see what’s going on here.”

They inspected the connections, and opened the diagnostics panel. Ivan exercised the systems. Oddly, all tests indicated the onboard systems were functioning correctly.

Andrew pondered the dilemma and inspected the antenna pedestal. There appeared to be an icy compound around it. “Ivan, there’s ice around the antenna collar.”

“I see it, too,” the lieutenant remarked.

Ivan inspected the material. “Someone greased the antenna collar assembly. No wonder this thing stopped working. You don’t use grease on space borne applications. It’ll freeze up in the extreme temperatures. We’re going to have to clear this, or it’ll never work. Pegasus, we’ve found the problem with Sentry. Someone greased the antenna collar. Please let Orion know.”

Knuckles came back immediately. “What knucklehead would do such a stupid thing? It’s Space Engineering 101. Our guys know better than to use grease in deep space applications.”

Andrew responded. “Knuckles, it was a deliberate act of sabotage. I’ll take a sample for analysis. I suspect it was a clear grease material. You’d never notice it unless you were making a detailed inspection of the antenna collar assembly. Up to orbit insertion and about an hour afterwards, everything would have tested okay.”

The men worked laboriously for two hours to clear the frozen grease from the antenna collar assembly. It had been hard work, especially in their stiff EVA suits. Their oxygen levels were running low and there was just enough oxygen to get back to the Pegasus. Assuming they encountered no additional problems.

“These suits sure make simple jobs seem hard. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to work in these things,” Andrew said.

“It takes a lot of practice,” Ivan replied. “I guess we’re done. Knuckles, the antenna collar should be free. Please have Orion command the antenna so we can check its movement.”

“Okay, Ivan. Position yourself clear. Activating the antenna assembly.”

The antenna assembly moved in response to Tarnak’s command from the systems control console on the Orion. The lieutenant didn’t notice how close he was to the antenna. Before he could react, it struck him, breaking his visor. The only thing Andrew heard was a brief scream. Sound can’t propagate in the cold empty vacuum of space. The lieutenant tumbled past Ivan, hitting him and spinning him in the way of the antenna.

“Ivan, watch out!” Andrew yelled over the comm.

Ivan looked up as the antenna swung around snagging his oxygen hose. As he spun around from the impact, the antenna struck Ivan’s control package, hurling him off into space, away from the satellite.

His life sustaining oxygen spewed out at an alarming rate. If the rate of outflow continued, his air supply would be gone in a few minutes. Ivan’s thruster propellant activated causing him to tumble and accelerate away from the satellite. “Andrew, I’m losing oxygen fast, and my control package isn’t working. Can you give me a hand?”

The lieutenant continued to spin away from the satellite — too far to reach. His broken faceplate a sure sign he was dead.

It’s hard to believe I’ve got to do a rescue on my first EVA. I hope I don’t screw this up.

“Hang in there, Ivan, I’m on my way. Knuckles, this is Andrew. Ivan’s suit pack is operating erratically and he’s tumbling off into space. I don’t think he has much air left. I’m going after him. The lieutenant is dead and out of reach. Please target our position, and try to move Pegasus closer. We may not have much time left. My O2 and propellant are both running low. I don’t think I’ll have enough air for both of us. It’s going to be close.”

“Roger, Andrew, I see you. I’ll get as close as I can. What’s going on?”

“The antenna hit both of them.”

“Damn! Okay, I’ll standby. Keep the comm link open.”

Andrew composed himself and remembered what Ivan told him: stop, think, and act. He activated his thrusters and slowly moved towards Ivan who tumbled and translated away from him. Andrew fired his thrusters again to correct his travel vector. A little better, he thought.

Low propellant warnings displayed on his visor. To his chagrin, his anxiety caused him to fire his thrusters in an erratic manner. If I overshoot, we’ll never get back. I might be out of O2 before Knuckles can get here.

He reached the critical point. Only one shot left. If I miss, I screw us all. It was not the best and it looked like he would be too far out. Oh, please let this be right. It was going to be close. The tip of Andrew’s gloved hand scraped across Ivan’s suit pack. One inch further and he would miss him with no way to recover. Andrew’s fingertips slid across Ivan, desperately seeking something, anything to grab onto. He was about to hit the panic button. In less than two seconds, the distance between them would increase just enough to make it impossible for him to secure himself to Ivan. An air hose was the last hope. Got it! He wrapped his fingers around the air hose and they swung together. “I’ve got you. I’m going to latch you to my suit.” Thank God! I made it.

“Thanks, Andrew. I’m about out of air … my heads getting foggy. Losing control … I need oxygen.”

Andrew connected his auxiliary air hose to Ivan’s secondary spaceport and opened the valve. Ivan’s eyes fluttered open as the fresh oxygen filled his helmet. After several breaths, he smiled.

“Thanks. You saved my life.”

“Well, we ain’t home yet. Hold on, pal, and I’ll try to get us back to the shuttle. Knuckles, I’ve got Ivan. Can you move the Pegasus closer? We’re sharing air, and my propellant pack is reading empty.”

“I can close to about fifty meters. I don’t want to risk getting any closer. I could hit you.”

“I hope we can make it.” Andrew’s suit computer flashed a message in red across his visor.

 

‘OXYGEN NEARLY DEPLETED. PROPELLANT TANK IS EMPTY. PLEASE REPLACE SUIT PACK IMMEDIATELY.’

 

Sure be nice if I had one, Andrew thought. The range on his visor indicated the Pegasus to be fifty meters away. His thrusters sputtered, threatening to shut down. His breathing grew difficult as the O2 thinned. It was becoming more difficult to focus and control their trajectory. Ivan dropped in-and-out of consciousness, his body jerked due to a lack of oxygen. Andrew started to experience tunnel vision and tried to fight the delirium setting in due to his own oxygen deprivation. I have to get us back. My head’s getting screwy. I don’t think we’re going to make it.

Without warning, the suit pack thrusters quit working. Andrew gulped for air capturing only a few stray molecules. On the verge of passing out, he began to hallucinate. He dug down deep, trying to keep his mind focused. He could tell their current travel vector would cause them to miss their intercept point with Pegasus, and they would drift off into space. He hit the thruster control three times and nothing happened.

Come on, baby. I know you can do it. A little bit more! Please.

He pulled the thruster control and held it. The thrusters gave one last feeble blast. It wasn’t much, but it stopped their motion. They were still too far out. The O2 was getting so thin he didn’t understand what he was breathing. Andrew mentally pleaded just a few stray molecules. He fought the urge to open his visor — to get a breath. He was losing control. “Knuckles … out of air and my thrusters quit. I can’t get any closer.”

“Hold on! I’m in the egress compartment. I have my hull repair suit on. I’ll try to reach you.”

“Hurry! Not much time left. I’ll try to give Ivan some more air. I’m not sure there’s any left. Having trouble here.”

Orion, this is Pegasus. The away team has depleted their suit pack resources. I estimate they’re stranded about fifty meters from the ship. I’m going EVA to get them.”

“Knuckles, this is the Captain. We’re going to come to you. We have your coordinates.”

“There isn’t enough time. They’re out of O2. I have to go get them now!”

“We’re on our way. Keep your beacon on so we can locate you.”

“Roger, sir. Pegasus out.”

 

Knuckles opened the egress hatch. The hull repair suit had a short tether so he grabbed a cable reel, and pushed himself outside of the ship. He could see Andrew and Ivan virtually suspended in space. He ranged on them and his readout indicated forty-five meters. Good thing Andrew stopped their translation. The cable reel only had a reach of twenty meters and the tether another ten. Fifteen meters short. Might as well be a kilometer. What am I going to do?

“Andrew, do you see me?” I think he passed out. I have to go get to them before their air runs out. Got to find another way. They don’t have much time left.

Knuckles pulled himself back inside and tried to find something to help him reach his comrades. The only thing of possible use was a small fire extinguisher. Have to do, he thought. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I gotta try. It’s all I have. He removed the extinguisher from the bulkhead retainer. As he stepped back into the black void, he knew he was taking a huge risk — with all of their lives.

Well, if I fail there’s no way back. It’s ironic we would all die forty–five meters from the ship. Orion will never get here in time to save us all. Here goes nothing. With short bursts, he directed his motion towards the two men stranded and desperate for air. Upon reaching the end of the tether, he disconnected himself and free floated.

The umbilical cord is gone. We’re on our own. God help us if I screw up. Orion will never get here in time. With additional short bursts, he vectored himself towards the two helpless astronauts.

Who would’ve thought I’d ever be using a fire extinguisher for a rescue operation four and a half light-years from Earth.

Ivan’s suit pack thrusters sputtered, changing their position. Knuckles checked the fill volume. Only 60 percent left. Wish they’d stay still. Andrew’s too far gone for me to ask him to disconnect Ivan’s thruster pack. He continued toward them using short, precise bursts from the extinguisher. Slowly he closed, and as he was within reach, Ivan’s suit thruster sputtered again and moved them further apart. Damn, what else can go wrong? With a few careful adjustments to his thrust vector, Knuckles finally grabbed Andrew’s O2 line. “Gotcha.”

The fire extinguisher was almost out of propellant, and so was Knuckles air. He connected his auxiliary line to Andrew’s suit first. Andrew opened his eyes and they appeared glassy. Knuckles could tell he was in oxygen deprivation. “We’re going to have to share air, so I’ll be moving the line around. Keep still.”

Andrew nodded.

Knuckles gave Ivan air, and connected the line to his own suit. He took a small breath and checked the propellant in the extinguisher. Only 5 percent left! The tether line had drifted away, and they were still forty meters out.

He lined them up as carefully as he could with the first blast. As they moved towards the ship, he corrected the vector to align them with the hatch. Fifteen meters out, he fired the last of the propellant. If he misaimed, they would float out into space and Andrew and Ivan would be dead before the Orion could reach them.

 

“OXYGEN DEPLETED. PROPELLANT TANK AT 0.1 PERCENT. REPLACE SUIT PACK IMMEDIATELY.”

 

No joke. We might make it if Ivan’s suit pack doesn’t malfunction again.

The ingress port of Pegasus was almost within his reach. Without activation, Ivan’s thrusters spat out their last gasp throwing them off vector. Oh, no! We’re going to overshoot.

They drifted toward the open hatch but the distance was out of reach. Knuckles mind rapidly tried to sort out some solution but he couldn’t come up with anything viable. He wasn’t sure what he could do. As they approached the hatch, Knuckles impulsively pushed the extinguisher away from them; the reaction changed their direction ever so little … just enough to allow his fingertips to grab the edge of the hatch.

He held on with all his might as the momentum of their travel threatened to pull his fingertips from the lip of the hatch and send them out into the black void. He grunted, and with every ounce of his determination, made one final desperate attempt to pull them in. He struggled, fumbled, and finally latched himself to a coupling ring. He would have taken a deep breath to calm his nerves, but there wasn’t enough air. Whew, we finally got a break.

“This is the Captain. We’ve located you. I have an away team suited up and ready to go EVA to assist. Do you need help?”

“No, we’re getting into the ingress hatch now.”

“Very well. We’ll stand by.”

He pulled the three of them into the hatch and pushed the ingress “close” command button. The door slowly shut. The Oxygen equalized and the green light flickered on. Knuckles quickly opened Andrew’s visor. Andrew took a big breath of fresh oxygen. His eyes had a glazed look.

Knuckles opened Ivan’s visor and prepared to administer CPR. After a few moments, Ivan took a shallow breath and opened his eyes.

“You don’t look like Saint Peter,” Ivan joked.

“I sincerely hope not,” Knuckles replied.

“Thank you for saving us,” Andrew whispered. “It was a very brave thing you did.”

He put his arm around Andrew’s shoulder. “We’re all shipmates, and when one of us gets into trouble, we’re all in trouble. Hey, Ivan wouldn’t have made it if not for you. Let’s get back to the bridge and go home. It’s almost happy hour. I could use a drink, or two.”

 

The trip back to Orion was a welcome relief. Knuckles flew into the hanger deck and the hanger bay doors shut. The big pressure pumps cut in.

 

“HANGER BAY 3 OXYGEN LEVEL STABILIZED.”

 

Andrew wrapped Ivan’s arm around his shoulder to help him walk. He was still too weak to navigate on his own. As they exited the Pegasus, the ship’s doctor came forward and took Ivan to sickbay for evaluation.

The captain walked up to Knuckles and Andrew and shook their hands. “I’m so sorry about Lieutenant Jones. He was a fine officer, and we’ll miss him.”

“I felt bad we couldn’t save him,” Andrew said. “The antenna broke his faceplate. I’ve never seen a man’s face blown out before. It was gruesome. He was really a nice guy. He didn’t deserve to die such a horrible death.”

“No one does,” the captain replied.

Andrew thought about the next event as they headed back to the bridge. Who would have imagined this phase of the mission would be so difficult. I knew things were going too smooth. Well, the slingshot’s next, and it’s a lot more risky.

Chapter 27

 

Starship Orion

In orbit above PC-5

 

Andrew felt like an insignificant speck, alone in the ominous black emptiness of space. The ship loomed one hundred meters away. Might as well be a kilometer. I’ll never make it. The EVA suit pack failed, and he slowly drifted away from the ship — out into the void. He gasped for air to soothe the burning pain in his lungs, but not a single molecule remained.

Out of desperation and plagued with dementia, Andrew opened his visor, fighting for air. His blood began to boil. His eyes hurt, burned, threatened to explode from his skull, the pain beyond tolerance. He tried to scream. There was no sound.

Andrew awoke with a start. Wet with perspiration, he abruptly sat up. Terrified for a moment, he didn’t know where he was. Thank God! It was only a dream.

He swung his legs over the bunk and rubbed his face trying to calm down. The grotesque image of Lieutenant Jones still haunted him. He struggled to his feet and staggered over to the washbasin to splash water on his face. The image that stared at him from the mirror appeared worn and tired. He had never looked this bad. He pulled his clothes on and stared at his trembling hands.

I feel like I’m going to throw up. Maybe I can find something to settle this nausea in the galley.

Andrew forced some food down, and went to the Astro Lab. Ivan was sitting at a science console working with Outpost.

Tarnak came over to Andrew with his hand outstretched. “How you doing, Andrew? That turned out to be one rough EVA, huh?”

“Yeah,” Andrew replied. “I’m all right, but I’m still shook up about Jones. There wasn’t a thing I could do to help him.”

“He was a nice guy. I’m grateful we got the two of you back,” Tarnak said. “I would have hated to lose all of you. If you’re ready, it’s time to survey Beluse and complete Outpost checkout.”

“I think some work would do me good.” Andrew sat down at the science console and leaned back. “Computer, bring up the holographic display and activate the sensor fusion processors. Adjust the mix ratio to the optimum view of the nebula. Use standard colors for the elements. Also, give us the same view on the main 3D astronomical screen.”

 

“WORKING. FUSING THE OPTICAL, X-RAY, INFRARED, AND RF SENSORS USING A STOCHASTIC MIX RATE TO OPTIMIZE THE PRESENTATION. MAIN SCREEN ACTIVATED.”

 

The view of the nebula created by the sensor fusion processors was perhaps the most beautiful and breathtaking thing Andrew had ever seen. The computer presented the nebula gasses in full color. Every element color-coded and presented as a spectacular sight of bright orange, red, green, and blue colored clouds. Towering columns of gas and matter, four light-years high, with globules of light and infant stars sprinkled throughout highlighted the nebula. The columns gave the appearance of giant guards dressed in transparent festive colors, standing watch over the nursery to protect the baby stars.

Ivan switched in another view as Major Tobey entered the lab. Tobey stared in awe of the magnificent structure in the holographic display. “That’s beautiful. What is it?”

“It’s a nebula,” Ivan said. “Beluse 321, to be exact.”

“A nebula?” Tobey asked, frowning. “I always thought they were just a bunch of debris and dust floating around in space.”

Ivan chucked, “It’s the universe’s birthing place and nursery for infant stars.”

“Are you pulling my leg?”

“No. See those dark clouds?”

“What about ‘em?”

“Astrophysicists call those clouds birthing soup. They are one of the coldest places in the universe with a temperature slightly above absolute zero. They’re mostly composed of hydrogen atoms and dust.”

“It doesn’t look like it’s doing anything.” Tobey said.

“Not much is going on right now,” Ivan replied. “In fact, that birthing soup may sit idle for millions of years. At temperatures near absolute zero, things hardly move. In this environment, gravity, even though it’s the weakest of the four known forces, is dominant. Therefore, over eons of time, it can cause the hydrogen atoms and other parts of the soup to clump together. As the clump grows, its gravity increases attracting more matter.”

“Ivan, you’re putting me on.”

Ivan chuckled and replied. “No. Excuse me for a moment. I think we can improve the picture. Computer, change the magnification factor by 1.8, and correct the orientation by 0.08 minutes of angle in the Z plane only.”

 

“MAGNIFICATION FACTOR INCREASED, OUTPOST HAS COMPLETED ITS ORIENTATION CHANGE. DO YOU WANT TO ADJUST THE FIELD OF VIEW?”

 

“No, thank you. What a beautiful picture. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Anyway, as the density of the clump increases, gravity compresses the core further and the temperature increases. When the temperature of the clump gets hot enough, the hydrogen atoms move so fast they overcome the enormous repulsive force of the atoms and collide,” Ivan explained. “The force of the collision is so great; it causes the atoms to fuse together; creating helium atoms and releasing a quanta of energy. If conditions are right, when the fusion process starts the baby star will light up with a bright flash, announcing its birth. Once this process starts, it’s so powerful nothing in the universe can stop it.”

“It amazes me how two little atoms can create so much energy,” Tobey noted shaking his head.

“There’s a simple explanation,” Andrew added. “When two hydrogen atoms fuse together, they create a helium atom with less mass than the two parent atoms. The mass lost during the fusion process is converted to energy in accordance with E=mc2. C, the speed of light, is a huge number, so a little mass converts to a lot of energy. That’s how stars work, and the process will continue until their fuel is used up — billions of years later.”

“I never knew how stars were born,” Tobey remarked. “Imagine … a star nursery. Who would’ve thought?”

“Lab, this is the Captain. How much longer are you guys going to need to finish your data collection? I’d like to start setting up for the next event.”

“Captain, we’re almost done,” Ivan reported. “Maybe another fifteen minutes. The data is phenomenal.”

“Glad to hear that. Let me know as soon as you’re finished.”

“Roger,” Ivan replied.

Still curious, Tobey commented, “I always thought when stars died they simply turned off, but someone once told me dying stars that supernova create all of the elements everything in the universe is composed of. Is that true?”

“It is,” Ivan inserted. “Fusion and gravity are offsetting forces keeping the star in balance.

When a star converts all of its hydrogen to helium, the fusion process starts creating other elements. After carbon, if the star is big enough, the fusion process creates Iron atoms. When this happens, the star is doomed. The iron atoms suck up all available fusion energy and gravity takes over. Gravity crushes the core and when it happens, death occurs very fast and the star goes supernova. Stars much bigger than our sun creates all of the known elements, and these are cast out into the universe, to create new life, when the star explodes.”

“So stars bigger than our sun creates everything.” Tobey said.

“Not quite. The heavy elements like gold and uranium are only made by stars much more massive than our sun, and only during the supernova itself,” Ivan replied. “The temperature and pressure required to fuse these elements only occurs for a brief moment so these elements are rare. To borrow a phrase, everything in the universe is made of elements created by a dying star, including people and animals. Stars, in conjunction with gravity and Bosons, are in effect the mothers of all creation. Or, if you like, the Johnny Appleseed’s of the universe.”

“What will happen to our sun?”

“Stars the size of our sun go through a red giant phase, and later become a white dwarf. The last element present when the fusion process stops is carbon. When carbon is compressed under great temperature and pressure what happens to it?”

“Well, it turns to diamond, if I remember my high school geology,” Tobey answered.

“A lot of people think the core of a white dwarf is composed of diamond,” Ivan said.

“Pretty amazing stuff,” Tobey replied. “Diamonds in the sky. Thanks for the tour. Well, guess I better get back to the bridge. My watch starts in ten minutes. Don’t you guys ever talk about more interesting stuff like baseball or girls?” Tobey joked as he ambled out of the lab.

Andrew approached Tarnak’s console. “How we doing?”

“Think I got everything. I’m downloading it now. Yes, here it is. We’re done here.”

“Captain, this part of the experiment is complete,” Andrew reported. “All data has been downloaded and transferred to Earth via Sentry.”

“Very well. Knuckles, take us back to PC1. Andrew, please have your equipment ready by 1500 hours. Knuckles, display the geometric model. I want you to keep the ship dead center in the box as we go around.”

“Roger, Captain. Should be a piece of cake.”

“I sure hope so. If they’re following the timetable, MCC will have reactivated the wormhole for Outpost checkout and our return trip. Engineering this is the captain. Have you completed the hull hookup for the power systems?”

“Aye, sir, we’re ready,” Tex, the Chief Engineer, replied.

As they approached the planet, the captain notified Mission Control via Sentry. “We’ll commence the PC1 survey in about one hour.”

“Roger, Orion. By the way, the astronomical data on the Beluse Nebula was fantastic. The entire astronomical community is buzzing! We’ve been able to command Outpost and downlink additional data so we’re satisfied the system is fully operational. Great job!”

“Thank you, Mission Control. Wish us luck.”

“Good luck,” Marc replied. “MCC out.”

Andrew thought of Teri, holding her in his arms, and feeling her body next to his. It would be good to see Scooter and Kala, and sleep in his own bed.

Tarnak interrupted his thoughts. “As far as I can tell the sensors are programmed and calibrated. We’re ready to start the survey. I’ve set the system up so we can see the mapping in real-time.”

“Great. I also want see the three dimensional geometric model displayed, along with the box the captain is using to keep us in the chute.”

“I’ve already done that. I’ll select it on the 3D holographic display. Computer, bring up model SAC.”

 

“WORKING. PRESENTING MODEL ON BOTH THE HOLOGRAPHIC AND THE FRONT ASTRONOMICAL DISPLAYS.”

 

“Captain, this is the lab, we’re ready to commence data acquisition,” Andrew reported.

“Very well,” the captain replied. “Attention, this is the Captain. We’re now proceeding to PC1. I expect the survey to commence in five minutes. Knuckles take us in and stay in the box. Give me full reaction power.”

“Aye, aye, Captain. Full reaction coming up.”

Knuckles pushed the throttle forward and Orion started its precarious trip around the beleaguered planet. As they transited through the corridor, everyone felt the tug of the main star’s gravity well, including the ship’s structure, which began to shake and vibrate.

The Astro Lab holographic display showed the Alpha Centauri system including PC1, and the complete transit corridor shown courtesy of Andrew and Tarnak’s model. A three dimensional view of the two suns and all of the solar system’s planets was presented in exact proportions. The display presented the transition corridor as a tubular spiral wrapping around PC1 with the color-coding the captain had requested. The Orion was at the entry point of the tube.

Both the holographic and astronomical displays showed the backside of the planet as they transitioned around it. Andrew and Ivan tried to make sense of this strange planet they were surveying.

“Ivan, PC1 is quite interesting. The planet is composed of young, recently formed material. It’s surface is smooth. I expected it to be full of pockmarks and deep jagged ravines. The volcanic activity is enormous. Look at that one!”

A volcano like structure erupted and threw lava several hundred kilometers out into the planes around the mound. At least four others spewed lava down their slopes and tossed molten material high above their short, deformed cones.

“This was the reason the geophysical community wanted to map this planet, Andrew. The suns’ gravitational tug on the planet is squeezing and stretching the planet’s crust, creating tidal flows that cause the core to heat up initiating the subsequent geologic and volcanic activity. I hope we get good seismic data. It’ll probably make earthquakes on Earth seem mild. I believe within a million years or so PC-1’s parent star will consume it — if it doesn’t self-destruct first. The planet can’t handle this much stress forever.”

They were close to completing the orbit around PC1 when Major Tobey came over the intercom. “Captain, Major Tobey.”

“Yes?”

“We have a small asteroid on a direct collision course with us.”

“Range?”

“Ten thousand kilometers and closing fast. It’s going to hit us, sir!”

The captain considered the tactical options open to him. Maneuverability was very limited. If they got out of the corridor, the gravitational tug of the stars might capture them.

“Knuckles raise the screens.”

“Screens at maximum.”

“Major, calculate a fire control solution on the asteroid and arm the antimatter torpedoes.”

“Aye, sir. I’m locking in the fire control solution now. The electromagnetic fuse is set and we’re ready to fire at your command.”

“Fire one.”

The antimatter torpedo accelerated from its launch tube, toward the asteroid. The launch geometry, asteroid trajectory, and supporting data displayed on the tactical screen. The torpedo sent back a fault signal.

“Captain, the torpedo EM fuse won’t turn off.”

“Try an override command, Major.”

“I already have, sir.”

The antimatter torpedo hit the asteroid dead center and bounced off like a rubber ball. Unfazed, the asteroid continued straight at them with enough kinetic energy to pulverize the ship.

The captain had expected some problems, but this. “Fire two, Major.”

“Torpedo two away, sir.”

“Tarnak, we better pull up our emergency model in case number two faults. If we have to leave the corridor, there won’t be time for a third torpedo.”

“I’ll do it right now, Andrew. Okay, it’s processing.”

The second torpedo shot out of its launch tube and sped at its intended target. Just before impact, a second fault message came back.

“Same problem, Captain, the EM fuse won’t turn off.”

“Try the laser cannon, Tobey,” the captain ordered.

“We might as well use a pea shooter, Captain. The laser isn’t powerful enough to divert the asteroid, sir.”

The asteroid closed to within one thousand kilometers and approached the ship at high velocity. Intercept and total destruction were a few moments away.

 

“COLLISION ALERT, COLLISION ALERT. TAKE EVASIVE ACTION.”

 

“Take evasive action, Knuckles. Keep it tight,” the captain commanded.

“Aye, sir, keeping it tight.” Knuckles banked the ship and the asteroid missed hitting them by less than fifty meters.

Captain Starling blinked several times and took a deep breath. “Good work Knuckles.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

Evading the asteroid caused the ship to drift out of the corridor. The alert claxons sounded and the computer announced:

 

“ALERT, ALERT. CORRECT COURSE IMMEDIATELY. SHIP HAS VIOLATED THE ORBITAL CORRIDOR PARAMETERS. ”

 

“Turn those horns off, Knuckles.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

The captain tried every standard maneuver in the tactics library, but nothing worked. The gravitational pull of the star had the ship in its tentacles — pulling it in. The ship shook violently as it struggled to break free. It was obvious they didn’t have enough power to escape.

The hull began to heat up, and the computer announced:

 

“HULL TEMPERATURE IS EIGHT HUNDRED DEGREES AND RISING. TAKE EVASIVE ACTION IMMEDIATELY.”

 

A minute later, the computer activated the red flashing emergency lights and announced:

 

“HULL TEMPERATURE IS NOW TWELVE HUNDRED DEGREES AND RISING. HULL FRACTURES DETECTED IN CARGO BAY 5.”

 

The ship continued to shake and the hull temperature increased to dangerous levels.

Andrew worried the ship might come apart at any minute. Not only was the hull temperature approaching its melting point, but the vibrations were close to the resonant frequency of the hull. The ship made weird noises as if it were dying and crying for help. He and Tarnak nodded agreement.

“Captain, please check the model on your display. I think it’s our only hope of escape,” Andrew said, emphatically.

“I looked this over earlier and it defies common sense,” the captain replied. “It can’t be right.”

The model had the ship creating an oblique angle to the stars for 6.325 seconds at full power, a port course change of 120 degrees with full reaction power, starboard bow thrusters, and port aft thrusters at maximum for 12.410 seconds. The final leg was a sixty-two degree, relative, course change to the port with full reaction power and with bow starboard thrusters and aft port thrusters set to maximum. The antigravity system was set to full power activated at the apex of the turn. The final component, added by Kala, was to reroute current from the power systems through the hull to use the stars magnetic field to create an outward expulsion force against ship’s hull.

“I don’t like the idea of turning control over to the computer — especially using a new, untested capability. If it’s wrong we lose the ship.”

“Captain, the model uses the real-time topography and orientation of the sun’s gravity well and the magnetic lines of force to optimize the escape strategy. The exact timing and real-time use of the gravity and magnetic field sensors to implement are so precise it has to be under computer control.”

“You’re betting our lives on it,” Starling said.

“The model will work. We’re going to die if we don’t use it.”

The ship vibrated badly and appeared to have lost the battle with the enormous gravitational forces drawing it in. The ship groaned like a dying man in his final stages of a painful terminating disease.

 

“HULL TEMPERATURE IS NOW FIFTEEN HUNDRED DEGREES AND RISING. HULL FRACTURE IS OCCURRING IN HANGER BAYS 2 AND 3. THE ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEM IS FAILING. ACTIVATING EMERGENCY ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEM. HULL VIBRATIONS ARE TWENTY HERTZ AWAY FROM RESONANT FREQUENCY.”

 

The ship made loud creaking sounds as the stress on the structure pushed it to the yield point. If they reached the resonant frequency, the ship would disintegrate.

The captain deliberated for a moment. Andrew’s model was the only course of action open to them. He had tried everything he knew. What the hell. Might as well try it. I don’t have an answer.

“Turning control over to the computer,” he announced.

The computer immediately displayed a map of the suns gravity well topography overlaid with the spatial distribution of the magnetic lines of force. Magnitude and directional components, or force vectors, annotated each point in the composite gravity and magnetic field map. The computer presented the ship’s trajectory through the field using green dots. At each critical point in the escape path, a red flashing vector indicated the exact time and spatial position of course corrections. Each correction point also had an elapsed time of execution to the following vector point, and displayed the gravity field parameters, and the magnitude and direction of the gravitational lines of force relative to the orientation of the ship.

 

“CHANGING COURSE TO 120.234 DEGREES IN 3.125 SECONDS.”

 

“COURSE CORRECTION IN 1.031 SECONDS. ACTIVATING FORWARD STARBOARD AND AFT PORT BOW THRUSTERS AND FULL REACTION POWER IN 0.512 SECONDS.”

 

Andrew watched the ship maneuvers on the holographic display. The computer was making constant adjustments to the pitch and roll configuration of the ship in response to the real-time changes of the external gravitational field and magnetic field dynamics and topography. He glanced over at the captain. His face showed no emotion, but Andrew noticed his fingers were gripping the armrest of his chair so tightly his knuckles were turning white.

The ship accelerated and shook even more violently as the gravitational tug of the star increased. The structural stress sounds worsened.

 

“HULL FREQUENCY IS TEN HERTZ AWAY FROM RESONANCE. HULL TEMPERATURE IS TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED DEGREES AND RISING. APPROACHING HULL MELT POINT. CRACKS DETECTED IN HANGER BAYS 1, 3 AND 5. CLOSING OFF ALL HANGER BAYS. EMERGENCY ENVIRONMENTAL SYSTEM IS HOLDING.”

 

Andrew and Tarnak tightened their restraining straps, closed their eyes, and waited. Hoping, praying the model was right. The fate of the entire crew had been entrusted to an untested computer model … validated only by Kala.

The environmental system strained to keep up with the load on the hull. If it failed, they would all die a quick death. The next few minutes would settle everything.

With a loud moaning sound, the ship slowly turned and assumed the new heading. The pull of the star was causing the ship to slide sideways, pulling it into the jaws of death.

The ship struggled to escape. The vibrations caused things to rattle, and the squeaking and screeching noises gave the impression the ship might come apart at any minute.

 

“HULL FREQUENCY IS FIVE HERTZ FROM RESONANCE. TEMPERATURE IS TWENTY-SIX HUNDRED DEGREES AND RISING. TWENTY-FOUR DEGREES FROM HULL MELT POINT. SHIP WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN THIRTY SECONDS.”

 

The next twelve seconds seemed like an eternity to Andrew. His breathing came in shallow, rapid gulps and his pulse rate skyrocketed. He felt as if his heart would burst out of his chest at any moment. He held his breath as he awaited the computers announced course corrections.

 

“course correction to 62 degrees in 4.234 seconds.”

 

The ship was adhering to the planned flight trajectory through the composite gravitational and magnetic fields of the stars. The final course vector was flashing; indicating correction to the last leg of the escape path was imminent.

 

“ACTIVATING ANTI GRAVITY SYSTEMS TO MAX CAPABILITY. COUPLING POWER SYSTEMS THROUGH HULL. ADJUSTING TO 125 PERCENT. PORT AND STARBOARD THRUSTERS AT MAXIMUM. FINAL COURSE CORRECTION IN 0.234 SECONDS.”

 

The starship made the final turn, vibrated badly, and the structure gave out a final semi-death groan under the enormous stresses. Andrew held his breath. If this didn’t work, they would all be dead shortly. The hull of the ship was glowing from the heat. All of a sudden, the ship gave out a hard shudder and shot outward as though propelled from a giant rubber band, heading away from the star, to a safer point in space.

The gravitational tug of the star diminished as they reached the safety of space: away from the danger posed by the star. Andrew opened his eyes and took a deep breath to calm his jittery nerves.

The computer announced:

 

“final course correction successful. power systems rerouted. anti gravity system turned off. releasing control of ship.”

 

“Knuckles, maintain this course and speed for thirty minutes, and take us out to PC5 at quarter reaction, to the wormhole,” Starling ordered.

“Aye, Captain. Maintaining course and speed.

The pressure lifted from Andrew’s chest. Tarnak still had his eyes closed.

The computer emitted a welcome announcement:

 

“HULL TEMPERATURE HAS DECREASED TO A SAFE TEMPERATURE. HULL VIBRATIONS ARE NORMAL. DAMAGE CONTROL PARTIES NEEDED IN HANGER BAYS 1, 3, AND 5.”

 

Captain Starling sat in his command chair trying to collect his composure. He had been to the brink many times, but never this close. After a couple of deep breaths, he smiled and paged the chief engineer. “Tex, get damage control (DC) parties to hanger bays 1, 3 and 5. Let me know when repairs have been completed.”

“DC Party is on its way, Captain,” the chief engineer replied.

Andrew sat motionless in his chair, unable to move.

“Are you stable?” Tarnak asked.

“I’m all right. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a case where systems have been pushed that far beyond capacity and not failed.”

“Welcome to the club, neither have I. Thankfully we dodged the bullet,” Tarnak replied. “Let’s finish up and get a drink.”

“I bet you never thought this trip would be so boring,” Andrew cracked. “Your boys will love this story.”

Tarnak reflected and responded with a laugh. “Yes they will. You know, we came close to being fried. I’m sure glad we decided to create that model.”

“As the captain said, ‘a bit of insurance,’” Andrew grinned. A message blinked on Andrew’s console.

 

‘Close call, guy! Glad you’re all right. Were you scared? Told you the model would work. K.’

 

Andrew replied.

 

‘Hey girl, just a walk in the park. Ha, Ha. Scared? Yes! Like out of my wits! I think I aged ten years today. See you in a couple of days. Tell Scooter hi. A.’

 

The captain met Andrew and Tarnak left the elevator and walked onto the bridge. He smiled and shook both their hands. “I want to thank you. If it weren’t for your model, I’m afraid we might not be here right now. I’ll make sure it’s entered in the Space Command Tactics library when we get back.”

“You’re welcome. I’m happy we survived,” Andrew acknowledged.

“It was a close call,” Tarnak agreed.

“Well, Captain, if you’ll excuse us we need a drink,” Andrew said.

“Enjoy it. You’ve earned it.”

 

The captain got on the comm link as the ship approached the wormhole. “Mission Control, this is the Orion. We have successfully completed our mission, and request permission to re-enter the wormhole and return to base.”

Marc appeared on the main display. “Orion, permission granted. Congratulations on a job very well done. Thank God, you’re safe. We were monitoring your course around PC1 from Sentry. For a while there, we thought we’d lost you. What happened? You were not supposed to leave the corridor.”

“It’s complicated, Mission Control. We’ll fill you in on the way back.”

“Very well. See you in a couple of days. Mission Control out.”

The captain blinked, smiled, and said, “Main display forward orientation. Knuckles, take us home.”

“Aye, aye, sir.

Starling rubbed his hand across the top on his baldhead. For a while, I didn’t think we’d be going home. Guess I owe Andrew and Tarnak a beer. Think I‘ll join them in the bar. I could use a stiff drink … maybe two.

Chapter 28

 

Anwar, Pakistan

 

The dirty, dark, smelly alley provided little cover for Yasaid Ahmed. It was hotter than Hell. His clothes were wet and the sweat trickled down, burning his eyes making it hard to see. The sewer rats frantically ran over his shoes. It repulsed him, but there wasn’t much he could do. He had killed five of his attackers. Their blood and brains oozed out in the alleyway, crazing the rats. The fight was almost over; he was out of ammunition, so the rats would soon be eating his flesh.

Bullets ricocheted off the wall behind him and dislodged concrete chips. The shards flew out and stuck in his skin. It hurt like hell. He bit his lip to prevent crying out. Strangely enough, he felt a sense of calm underneath the adrenalin flow surging through his body. There was no escape path left. It was all over.

The remaining two SWG soldiers approached, and when they saw him, they raised their full auto AKM-77s. The hate on their faces changed to menacing smirks. Time seemed to stand still. Just as they pulled the triggers, a loud ringing noise sounded.

“What in the hell?” His eyes burned from the sweat. He was confused, scared, and angry. “Allah be blessed … not again!” Thankfully, the ring of the phone plucked him from his horrible recurring nightmare. This time, he escaped the pain of their bullets.

He picked up the phone and yelled, “What is so important you would call me this early? I can’t talk now. Call again in two hours!”

“Where will you be?”

“At my office,” he replied.

The man hung up.

Holy shit, I can’t seem to kick this dream. If Olmid hadn‘t killed those two sons of bitches when he did, and saved my ass, I would have fed the rats. The three months I spent in the hospital, recovering from my wounds, made me hate them even worse.

Yasaid sat on the side of the bed still shaky and deeply puzzled about the early call and its urgency. It disturbed him. These type communications were usually the start of a new operation, or a problem with an ongoing one, which he had to fix. Sometimes, the assignment included the elimination of some problem-maker, or often as not several of them. He scratched the three AKM-77 bullet hole scars on his chest, a present the SWG had given him.

I bet they’re giving us trouble again. Guess I’ll find out soon enough. I would sure like to eliminate those bastards. I’m really tired of them.

He groaned as he got out of bed, stretched to sooth his aching muscles, and headed for the john. When he finally woke up, he picked out a black, pinstriped single-breasted business suit and complemented it with a striped tie and black Italian loafers. After dressing, he admired himself in his bedroom’s full-length mirror.

He wore his curly black hair and beard cut close. A big man, he weighed over 210 pounds and was six feet tall. He ran his hand over his middle, pleased with his flat stomach. He liked his light brown complexion and thought himself quite handsome. I’m a fine specimen for a man of forty, and what a lady-killer I am. A good-looking man like me should have women beating down his door.

 

Yasaid enjoyed his breakfast of fruit, rolls, cheese, and tea while he read the morning paper to catch up on the latest international political and business news. He poured himself another cup before he picked up his briefcase, got in his new Mercedes STV and went to his office in downtown Anwar.

Yasaid took a lot of pride in his successful import export business. Over the years, he had established distribution centers in America, China and other European Union nations. From all outside appearances, he was a successful and rich Pakistani executive.

His secretary placed a folder, containing things requiring his attention, on his desk. After she brought him tea, he opened the folder and accessed his mail from his Qtab.

Yasaid looked out the window. What a beautiful day. Sure would like to play some golf or even better spend the afternoon in bed with my girlfriend.

While reading his messages, the phone call he expected came in.

“Yasaid, this is Sheik Ollie Oganda.”

Yasaid responded immediately. “Yes, Your Grace, how can I be of service?”

The sheik responded in a quiet tone. “I see you’re awake now. I need to meet with you in Cairo immediately. How soon can you be here?”

“Allah willing, I can be there tomorrow.”

“Very good. We shall meet at the mosque day after tomorrow.”

Chapter 29

 

Cairo, Egypt

 

Cairo traffic was heavy, as usual. Wrecks were common in Cairo and most STVs had the damages to prove it. Almost no one bought insurance, so when a wreck occurred, the occupants got out and the ensuing argument always led to a bloody fistfight. When it was over, they got back into their STVs and drove off — sometimes.

Glad I’m in a cab, he thought. I’d hate to have to bust some bastard’s head today and mess my suit up. When the holographic chauffer pulled the vehicle into the hotel entrance, Yasaid used his card, paid the fare, and got out.

Hotel security was extremely tight to protect visiting dignitaries and business executives who always stayed there. He went through two levels of security to enter the lobby. When he got to his room, he looked out on the courtyard. There were armed security guards and soldiers with automatic weapons everywhere.

He felt comfortable knowing he could sleep this night without the worry of having his throat cut by an SWG soldier. He was sure they knew he was in Cairo.

Yasaid awoke early and ordered breakfast sent to his room along with the Cairo Daily newspaper. As usual, articles concerning people violating their marriages or committing various crimes took up one or two pages of the paper. The civil and criminal courts were always crowded. Since women could not file for divorce, the most common crime seemed to be a woman plotting to have her husband killed so she and her lover could marry or obtain the husband’s money. Women trying to travel without a signed permission slip from their husband were also frequent topics of dispute. Jail time and stiff fines were the usual punishment. Yasaid liked the Cairo Daily, if for no other reason than to read these articles.

After finishing a fruit and cheese breakfast, he picked up his satellite video phone and called the sheik. The sheik answered at the first ring.

“Hello, Yasaid. I’m pleased to see you made it. When can you arrive at the mosque?”

“If the cab’s punctual, and Allah willing, I can be there in one hour.”

“Good, I look forward to this meeting. We have important matters to discuss.”

“Excellent, Your Grace, I’ll see you shortly.”

 

The mosque sat on top of a hill east of the central section of Cairo. Yasaid marveled at its beauty as they drove up the meticulously landscaped drive. The architecture was Moroccan, with a golden dome on top. Before he entered the mosque, he removed his shoes and bowed in reverence. They planned to meet in a meeting room off the main prayer center. Yasaid appreciated the hallway’s great arches and fired bright-red Moroccan floor tiles. Beautiful murals of religious significance adorned the walls, and artfully sculptured gardens complemented courtyards all around the mosque. It was truly beautiful.

The sheik was praying when he arrived at the meeting room. Yasaid waited until he finished before he entered. After all their years together, Yasaid still felt nervous about any audience with Oganda. At the appropriate point, the sheik gave Yasaid his hand. Yasaid bowed and kissed his ring.

“Yasaid, I’m pleased you are here, we have much to talk about.”

“Thank you, Your Grace. May Allah bless you with long life.”

“Please close the door. We must discuss the status of our project.”

An aid brought the men tea, and left closing the door behind him.

“What is the status of the Americans wormhole project?”

“Your Grace, the Americans have just completed the first successful flight through the wormhole. They are returning to Earth as we speak.”

The sheik’s eyes lit up. “Praise be to Allah. Excellent news. Where are we in our efforts?”

“Our system construction’s on schedule. The system design and implementation is complete, but we still do not have all the necessary computer codes to control the weapon system. It’s going to take a little while longer to get those.”

“I’ve been curious to know how you have been able to obtain such sophisticated equipment without violating international export laws,” the sheik said.

“My moles in the STL procurement department have sent us all the drawings and specifications they’ve used to buy equipment for the project. We’ve bought the equipment and materials under our international science and technology agreements.”

The sheik smiled and asked, “What is the status of Omega’s efforts to implement our plan? His efforts at STL are critical if we are to obtain the rest of the information we need to finish up our work in the valley.”

“Omega is proceeding with the plan we approved and making good progress.”

“Excellent. As you know, the SWG has unsuccessfully attacked our weapon site several times. Site security is going to become more important as we get close to operational status. I want you to go to the weapon facility, review the operational status with General Sone, and inspect our security. Make any changes you think are necessary. The site must be secure.”

“I’ll leave as soon as I get back to Anwar.” He kissed the sheik’s ring, and left.

 

Yasaid saw a grey Mercedes STV pull up in front of the Mosque as he got into his cab. A short, fat, bearded, bald man wearing sunglasses exited carrying a small package. Yasaid’s window was open slightly. “Don’t leave yet.” He said to the holographic chauffer.

The fat man approached a beggar standing at the entrance to the mosque. “I have a gift for Sheik Oganda,” he said. “I’ll give you twenty pounds to leave it for him.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll make sure the sheik gets it.” The beggar took the package and smiled as the fat man gave him the twenty pounds.

“Deliver it right away.” The fat man turned, walked back to his STV and left.

Yasaid considered the scene he had just witnessed. Why would someone deliver a package for the sheik at the mosque? Very curious. Maybe I should investigate. He checked his watch. Damn, if I don’t leave now I’ll miss my flight. I have to get back. “Let’s go,” he said.

 

Anwar, Pakistan

 

The flight back was uneventful, and it was a beautiful day. After landing, Yasaid took off his tie and jacket, picked up his Mercedes STV and the computer drove him to his office. He felt good about the meeting with the sheik. He sipped his tea and accessed his mail. His secretary brought folders with all of the urgent business matters outlined. As he opened his file, the phone rang.

“This is Yasaid. How may I help you?”

It was the sheik, “Yasaid, someone tried to kill me yesterday after you left.”

“May Allah bless us, are you okay? What happened? Are you hurt?”

“Fortunately it was a small bomb. I was in the adjoining courtyard in prayer and only received a few scratches. My ears are still ringing. Otherwise, I’m all right. Ten people were killed.”

“Your Grace, it must have been the SWG. If they’ve taken such a bold step, they will strike again. I suggest you relocate to Anwar for your own safety. Besides, the Egyptian government has not been cordial. I think President Hussein holds a grudge against us. We still have a score to settle with him.”

“I agree. I plan to come to Anwar later this week. I’ll stay at your beautiful home and make it our headquarters.”

“It is my honor to accommodate you. I’ll have a driver and bodyguards pick you up. Let me know when and what time. We’re going to make those bastards pay for this atrocity, Your Grace.”

“They will pay all right,” he snarled. “I’ll see you soon.”

After talking to the sheik, Yasaid knew they intended the bomb for both of them.

The bastards knew I was there to meet with the sheik. It looks like the SWG Intel organization is better than I thought.

The SWG would soon step up attacks making it necessary to increase security — not only at his home, but certainly at the project site. Yasaid called General Yungsi Sone to arrange a visit and inform him of the attempt on the sheik’s life. After their conversation, he phoned Olmid Abdual. “Olmid, we must go to the Waziristan Valley. Please pick me up tomorrow morning at eight.”

“I’ll get everything ready.”

“Don’t forget my automatic,” Yasaid reminded him. After the call, Yasaid sat at his desk playing with a 9 mm shell and reflected about his old friend. He thought back over the twenty years the two spent in the Movement of Allah. Much of the time, Olmid served by his side, and together, they went through many vicious gunfights with the Sacred Warriors of God.

He couldn’t help but remember the night in Mogadishu. It was hot and steamy. His clothes were soaked, and his eyes stung from the sweat running down his forehead. He had been in a gunfight and killed five men. Two SWG soldiers pursued him into an alley and opened fire. Fortunately, Olmid killed them before they could finish him off. Shrapnel was still embedded in his leg, and three bullet hole scars marred his chest.

I’m glad Olmid’s going on this trip with me. Olmid’s a tough son of a bitch and a good soldier. I have a strong feeling I’ll need him. I think I’ll ask him to head up security at the site.

Chapter 30

 

Yasaid’s Residence

Anwar, Pakistan

 

Yasaid couldn’t sleep. His mind was preoccupied with the upcoming visit to the weapon facility. He usually had a bloody shootout — with the SWG — every time he went to the valley.

Tired of rolling around, he got and decided to clean his 9 mm. An hour later, satisfied with his task, he put a couple extra clips in his pocket, registered a round in the chamber, and set the safety.

He checked the clock and looked out the window. He smiled as his ride pulled in front of the house — right on time. A small, frail-looking man got out and leaned against the STV. Yasaid grabbed a thermos of tea, stuck the 9 mm in his belt and went outside to join his old friend. Olmid’s round face handle bar moustache, wire frame glasses, and signature turban gave him a perpetual happy face look. His appearance always made Yasaid smile, but he knew it concealed a very tough, loyal and efficient killer. Nothing scared the little man.

“Good morning, Olmid. Did you bring the weapons?”

“Good morning, Yasaid. They’re under the seat.”

Yasaid got in and retrieved a 10 mm automatic, pulled back the slide to register a round and set the safety. He activated the laser pointer, and spotted it against a louver on his house. What a fine accessory, he thought, admiring the new laser sight. “Praise Allah, I hope we don’t have to shoot our way through the Waziristan Valley like we did last time. Those pigs from the SWG will probably have some high caliber weapons. If they intercept us, the shit is really going to hit the fan. Sure would hate to get my ass shot off before we reach the facility.”

“Allah willing, I’ll die happy knowing I took a bunch of the slugs with me,” Olmid said with a smile. “I’d like to help them get their mansion and seventy two virgins. Hope they take a lot of erection pills with them.”

Yasaid snickered, and took a deep breath. I just hope we make this trip without a shootout.

Olmid directed the computer to pull the STV into traffic and head for the frontier. It would take an hour to get out of Anwar and onto the pothole-ridden road leading to the valley. “How was your visit with the sheik?” Olmid asked.

“Good, but the SWG tried to kill him the day I left. I’m sure they were after me, too.”

“What happened?”

“Someone left a bomb by the prayer room at the mosque. Fortunately, the sheik went outside to pray in the courtyard when it exploded and only received a few scratches. The bomb must have gone off right after I left.”

“I’m relieved to know the sheik wasn’t harmed,” Olmid said. “Sooner or later we must deal with this pack of dogs. They’re getting far too bold. We need to finish them once and for all. I’m dying to pull a trigger when the time comes. I’d like nothing better than to kill a bunch of those bastards.”

Yasaid smiled and thought, so would I, my friend.

Without warning, another vehicle swung in front of them. The computer swerved to avoid t- boning him. “You son of a bitch! Watch where you’re going!” Olmid screamed. “Shit! Get ‘em off a camel and these stupid bastards don’t have a clue about what they’re doing. It’s almost as bad as Cairo.”

At the outskirts of the city, the magnetic grid terminated. The computer automatically began the seamless crossover procedure to activate the Off Grid System. It extended the wheels from their internal compartments and deactivated the levitation system. The magnetic drive motors activated as the wheels touched down. The computer increased the drive frequency and the STV headed down the unmaintained, gravel road to the Valley.

Chapter 31

 

Waziristan Valley

Pakistan

 

It was not a pleasant drive. Three hours on a bumpy, dusty road in sweltering heat before reaching the frontier. MOA guards armed with automatic weapons stopped them.

“Give me your papers.” The guard showed no emotion as he checked the inside of their vehicle and looked them over suspiciously.

Yasaid pulled the holographic chip from his vest pocket and handed it to the guard. The guards were hard line militarists, who were very professional in the execution of their duties. The leader, a large, mean-looking man known as Mohammed, dressed in black robes with ammo belts strapped across his chest, took the chip. After checking it, he went to his tactical STV (TSTV). Bullet holes riddled the battle-worn TSTV. The tactical had a 70 cal machine gun outfitted with a slung-under impulse round chamber, mounted on the bed of the truck. After a brief phone call, he came back.

“General Yungsi Sone has authorized your transport to the site,” he said.

Yasaid nodded his approval.

“I will escort you to the site, so get in my vehicle.” Mohammed told them as he returned the chip. A second man took his position at the machine gun and loaded a belt of high impulse ammunition. Yasaid only knew of Mohammed by reputation — a bad dude. He had close-set, beady eyes with a crazy look. His short, black, scrawny beard and yellow teeth, several of which were missing, his large frame, and hook-type Arab nose made him look very ferocious. He was.

The trip through the hazardous narrow mountain roads was making Yasaid nervous. Mohammed had set the TSTV on manual mode and was driving as if he had a death wish. On each curve, the vehicle skidded sideways and the wheels barely stayed on the road. Gravel spilled down the steep embankments, rushing towards the valley five hundred meters below. The machine gunner’s hands never left the grips of the 70 cal. Yasaid looked down the embankment on each curve and noted how far it was to the bottom. He was a desert man and not used to being on such precarious roads. The height and steep embankments intimidated the tough man. No one would survive such a fall, he thought. Well, so far so good. No SWG. This man drives like he’s crazy.

An hour later, the vehicle rounded a turn in the mountain road. Yasaid’s ribs were hurting from the pounding the bumpy road had imposed on them and their vehicle. Up ahead, Yasaid saw a small valley-like area carved out of the mountainside covered with scrubby brush. He figured the road construction people probably excavated it and used it to park their equipment and store materials when they made the road.

A rocket-propelled, armor piercing impulse grenade exploded close to the TSTV, jarring the men and throwing the machine gunner off the vehicle. He rolled several times before he skidded to a halt, face down in the road.

Mohammed stopped the vehicle with such force it slid around and almost went off the side of the cliff. He screamed at Yasaid. “Get weapons from under the seat and get behind the vehicle! I don’t know how many of the dogs are hiding in the brush. We have a fight on our hands. Allah be praised. It’s a great day to be killing, he said, as the attackers opened up with automatic gunfire.”

The gunner pushed himself off the ground and then jig zagged back to the TSTV trying to avoid the spray of bullets directed his way. He climbed back onto the vehicle, cocked the machine gun, and counterattacked. The first few rounds of the 70 cal took out several attackers hiding in the brush. Yasaid and Olmid loaded their assault weapons and began shooting back. It was hard to get a clean shot. The incoming weapon fire was intense and pinned them down behind their vehicle.

Only one group is going to leave here alive, Yasaid thought. I hope it’s us. Wonder how the bastards knew we were coming.

Bullets ricocheted off the side of the vehicle. Several more impulse grenades exploded behind them throwing dirt and rock into their backs. Yasaid’s head hurt from the concussions, his ears were ringing, and he had an earache.

Olmid slammed in another clip. “Shit!” he screamed as he returned fire. “The bastards are thicker than fleas on a dog’s back.”

Yasaid shook his head to clear his thoughts, wiped the dirt from his eyes, and opened fire. The first rounds from his weapon killed two of the SWG. He smiled and continued shooting. It was hard to get a clean shot. Every time he popped up, the enemy would respond with automatic weapons, spraying bullets all around him. The incoming fire from the SWG automatic weapons was so dense it was like standing in the middle of a swarm of bees. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the front fender of the TSTV and blew it off. The explosion ejected the machine gunner from the vehicle and he almost rolled over the side of the cliff. The sound of the explosion nearly ruptured Yasaid’s eardrums. He winced with pain and he felt a trickle of blood seeping out of his left ear. He could hear Mohammed cursing as he returned fire.

The machine gunner crawled back onto the bed of the TSTV and restarted the 70 cal. They could hear the attackers scream as the 70 caliber rounds tore their bodies apart. Arms, legs, and heads were scattered all over the kill zone.

Mohammed fired impulse rounds at the SWG. The high power rounds took their toll, blowing more enemy soldiers apart. Yasaid rose up slightly to fire. A bullet grazed his cheek. Blood streamed down his face. He screamed and wiped the blood off. Cursing loudly he returned fire as fast as he could, hitting several more attackers. More impulse grenades exploded behind them, throwing both Olmid and Yasaid away from their vehicle, knocking their weapons from their hands.

They laid there in a daze. Olmid’s nose blead from the blast and Yasaid’s head was pounding from the severe concussive force of the RPGs. Both ears were seeping blood and his hearing seemed diminished. They finally cleared their heads enough to crawl back behind the TSTV. The sounds of exploding rounds filled the air, and bullets riddled the ground all around them.

It was hard to see. Smoke and dirt filled the still air, and the gunpowder created so much pollution it was hard to breathe.

I’ll be lucky if I have any hearing left, Yasaid thought. Blood ran down his face. Even though they killed a lot of the attackers, the enemy returned their fire. It was obvious they were greatly outnumbered.

Ignoring a swarm of incoming fire, Olmid jumped up and ran across the road, screaming and firing his weapon. A machine gun burst hit him in the arm. He went down with a scream and a thud.

When Olmid hit the ground, Yasaid saw enemy soldiers moving towards him. If they got to him before he did they would slit Olmid’s throat. He jumped up yelling and ran towards his friend, shooting short bursts killing two of the enemy trying to get to Olmid.

The SWG soldiers responded with several more rocket–propelled impulse grenades. The last one knocked Yasaid to the ground. He lie there for a moment, stunned. His head was dizzy, pounding with pain from the concussion of the grenade. He cleared his head, wiped the blood from his face, and looked for his weapon.

“Thank Allah my gun is okay,” he murmured. He shoved another clip in and fired at his attackers who were slowly moving in on his position.

The machine gunner did a sector sweep with the 70 cal. At his second burst, the enemy soldiers responded with several deadly rounds and blew the back of his head off, showering blood and brains all over the bed of the vehicle. He fell by the side of the vehicle, his body quivering, but only for a moment.

Yasaid’s adrenaline rush made him oblivious to the danger. He continued firing and moved ever so close to his wounded friend’s position. He winced as the bits of rock and sand thrown up by the bullets bouncing off the ground around him hit his face and stung his eyes. He couldn’t stop to wipe his eyes least the SWG close on him. His whole body hurt from the concussions and the bits of rock lodged in his skin. Warm blood trickled down his chest, and his face and ears were also slowly bleeding.

As he got close to Olmid, an enemy soldier jumped up a few feet away and fired three rounds taring the turban from his head. Yasaid winced, and responded with automatic fire cutting the soldier in half. Blood sprayed the ground and Yasaid. The soldier’s guts spilled out of his torso.

Mohammed jumped up from his position and retrieved the 70 cal. It didn’t take long for him the end the fight.

After the firing stopped, Yasaid got to Olmid. “Are you hurt badly?”

Olmid looked up at Yasaid and, with a grimace grunted, “No. Just a flesh wound. I‘ll be fine.”

“Let me help you up.”

Yasaid knew Olmid would never disclose the extent of his pain. It was the tough little man’s way. It would have to be bad before he would say much.

As they returned to the battered vehicle, Mohammed wiped dirt from his eyes. “I think they had about fifty soldiers. Well, the pigs are all dead now. Allah protected us today.” Mohammed stared at his dead companion. “You know, Mosouf and I served in Africa for four years and fought many bloody battles together. I will miss him. He was a friend and a good soldier.”

Yasaid was amazed that Mohammed would ever admit he had a friend or anyone else he cared about. Yasaid retrieved the first aid kit and bandaged Olmid’s wound. It wasn’t the first time he had administered aid to his friend. His own face felt like some wildcat had scratched it to pieces.

“Do you need a pain killer?” Mohammed asked.

Olmid laughed and said, “For a scratch?”

Yasaid helped Mohammed put Mosouf’s body in the back of the vehicle. Mohammed jumped in the driver’s seat and pulled the vehicle back on the road.

Yasaid was still worried. “Do you expect any more problems?”

“No. We ran into an SWG recon group. They were probably resting in that enclave when they spotted us. I think we killed most of them. They’ll leave us alone now. Allah was truly on our side this day.”

The remainder of the trip was somber. Yasaid thought about what Sheik Oganda had told him. He worried the SWG would attack the facility again and how it might affect the project. I wonder if we can really pull this off. The sheik has such great plans, and he is smart, but no one has been able to conquer the entire world since the Romans. Now the world is bigger and much more dangerous.

The roads grew worse and the vehicle bounced and jumped around. Mohammed didn’t make it any better. His driving is still insane, Yasaid thought. The vehicle hit a big pothole and Yasaid’s head rammed the top of the cab. “Shit, Mohammed,” he yelled. “Do you have to drive like a crazy man? Why don’t you activate the computer?” He rubbed his head to ease the pain.

Mohammed laughed. “I hate fucking computers. I don’t trust them.”

“Who is this General Sone? I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know anything about his background,” Olmid said. His voice not disclosing any hint of pain.

“He joined our group about ten years ago. At one time, he was the North Korean Secretary of War and later the Minister of Science and Technology,” Yasaid said. “He and the dictator, Jouel Sung Un, got into a disagreement over a nuclear deal with Egypt. He left the country after Egyptian special ops killed his family at his home in Penjing.”

“Ouch,” Olmid cried out, as Mohammed hit another big pothole and slammed him into the door.

“Damn, Mohammed! Are you trying to kill us?” Yasaid complained. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Eventually Sone immigrated to Pakistan and linked up with the MOA. His science and defense background was ideal to allow him to head up our project. He’s an intelligent man dedicated to the destruction of the western powers, Egypt and the SWG.”

Yasaid’s head hit the top of the cab as Mohammed hit another deep pothole. “Damn it, Mohammed! You’re going to send us to an early grave,” Yasaid yelled as he rubbed his forehead. Last time I ever let this crazy bastard drive me anywhere.

Olmid groaned and Mohammed laughed louder.

They arrived at the site after another hour of abuse from the pothole-infested road and Mohammed’s driving. No one would have suspected this simple looking cave was the entrance to one of the most sophisticated weapons facilities in the world.

They drove the vehicle into the mouth of the cave and stopped at a parking space.

I’m going to have to make some serious security changes to this place, Yasaid thought. We need a fence and security towers in place with high caliber automatic weapons installed.

“Olmid, do you need help?”

“No thank you. Hell, I’ve had women scratch my balls worse than this.”

Mohammed gave Olmid a funny look. “Shit! What kind of wildcats do you mess around with? Do they wear black leather?”

Olmid grinned. “Only when they tie me up.”

The three men laughed and got into a personnel utility cart. Mohammed drove the cart down a long, concrete tunnel with armed guards posted every thirty feet. After several turns, they arrived at their final destination. Mohammed stopped the vehicle, and announced, “We are here.”

They approached a set of steel doors. Mohammed pushed an intercom button, talked with someone, and walked to the identification station. An eye retinal scanner confirmed his identity, and the doors unlatched to allow entry. Two guards checked their ID chips after which they rode an elevator down three hundred feet to the main floor.

A short tunnel way led to another set of steel doors. The armored doors opened, and two armed guards asked for their identification again.

“Welcome to the facility. General Sone is waiting for you in the command center. Follow me and I’ll take you in,” a guard said.

Chapter 32

 

Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley, Pakistan

 

The command center was on a second story balcony overlooking a large, well-lighted, modern, high tech facility. A tall, Korean man in a neatly tailored uniform greeted them. A sword hung from his belt.

“Gentlemen, welcome to Project Allah’s Breath.”

Yasaid returned the smile. “Thank you, General. May I introduce Olmid Abdual?”

“It is a pleasure to meet a good warrior. I heard from Mohammed you ran into a bit of trouble in route. All of you look a bit beat up. Olmid, you’re wounded. Are you all right?” The general asked.

“I’ll be fine, sir. Thank you for asking.”

Sone went on. “One day soon we shall finish this thing with the Sacred Warriors of God. They have been a pain in our ass for too long. Well, gentlemen, I think we need to give you the one-rupee tour. He turned and waived a hand at the surroundings as he started walking. “This glassed room overlooks the main control center below. My console allows me to monitor everything. From my command position, I can call up the status of any system, do diagnostics, or override any operation. Let’s go downstairs where we can see more.”

The main floor was a beehive of activity. Engineers and technicians worked to integrate systems and others were testing, running diagnostics, and debugging code. The general picked up a vid phone. “Dr. Lieu, please come to the control center.”

Lieu walked in wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard. Yasaid thought him to be about sixty and maybe of Chinese origin. His slender five feet six build, round, black, horned rim glasses, black drooping moustache, and long black hair made him look like some kind of a mad scientist. Yasaid chuckled to himself and thought. He probably is a mad scientist — the Asian version of Dr. Frankenstein. He tried to not grin and divulge his private humor obtained at Lieu’s expense.

“Doctor Lieu is our Chief Scientist. He has PhD’s in Theoretical Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Robotics,” Sone said. “He was the scientist in charge of China’s Space Program to put the first Chinese astronaut on Mars. He has published over two hundred technical papers and written twenty books on theoretical and quantum physics. He’s a great scientist.”

“I’ve heard of Dr. Lieu and I’m honored he’s a part of our great movement,” Yasaid said. “It is my extreme pleasure to meet you, sir.”

Lieu gave Yasaid a slight bow.

“Doctor, would you please brief Yasaid and Olmid so they will see the great work you and your team have done?”

“I would be honored. The tunnel you see at the left of the room leads to the field and matter synthesizers. Superconducting field coils, used to generate the weapon and provide spatial navigation, are located around the system output port. A two-kilometer synthesizer meets in the center of the field coils, which produces and controls the exotic materials we need to create and stabilize the weapon system. All of these systems are interconnected by state vector optical supercomputers; they continually generate and balance the gravitational field equation solutions to produce the weapon; maintain its stability and provide the spatial navigation we need to direct it to target.”

“Is there a limit to the size of an area it can destroy?” Yasaid asked.

“No,” Lieu said. “We’ll use it like a precision weapon of mass destruction to completely annihilate anything we wish. Make no mistake; it is a monster of the first degree. Once it strikes, nothing survives — no life or structures. It is the perfect balance of power weapon, and whoever has it, and uses it correctly, can control the world. Of course, our enemies could attack us, but they would have to use strategic weapons such as antimatter, nuclear or Rods From God. The attack must be very precise. We have our facility completely isolated from such events.”

Yasaid liked what he heard. “When will we be operational?”

“We still have a few deficiencies, but once we obtain what we need, they’ll be modified and adapted to obtain the final design. Several hundred years ago, after the Russians launched Sputnik, one leader said, ‘the world will tremble at the sound of our rockets.’ This time they will pray the Earth covers them up and hides them when our hideous abomination strikes,” Iieu said, defiantly.

Yasaid, thought, the first bunch to feel our power will be the Sacred Warriors of God.

Lieu went on. “The diagnostics console to the left of you allows us to monitor the system’s operation, and system metrics. The next console is the field and matter synthesizer console. This is where we generate the weapon. Adjacent to this is the navigation console. It works in conjunction with the field and matter synthesizers to navigate the weapon to target. Actually, it would be more correct to call these two stations the targeting subsystem. The end console is the relativistic design and simulation console. It provides solutions to the field equations from which to design, generate, and control the weapon.”

“What’s the large display on the front wall?” Olmid asked.

“It’s our 3D Earth Targeting Map,” Lieu said. “It shows a flat view of the Earth and the geometric configuration and spatial orientation, or projected targeting path. We’re tied into the World Navigation Satellite System, or WNS as it is commonly referred to, so we’re able to get the precise coordinates and time data we need to accurately direct the weapon to target.”

“How about a demonstration?” Yasaid requested.

The general complied with a sly grin. “Target Yasaid’s home.”

Lieu entered the coordinates from the holographic control panel on the navigation console, and the Earth map rapidly showed the location and computed path to target — Yasaid’s home.

Yasaid grinned and said, “Well, let’s hope we don’t accidentally target this point.”

“Once we get the system on-line, I plan to initiate the attack the sheik ordered,” the general informed them.

Olmid could not contain his excitement. “This will be the most powerful weapon in the world. Allah willing, we will be undefeatable.”

“Yes.” The general fingered the grip of his sword. “I will relish settling old scores and seeing our enemies scream with fear and pain when our weapon destroys their miserable existence. It makes me happy just thinking about it. I can’t wait to start killing the dogs.”

Chapter 33

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Time to the final, manned spaceflight was counting down rapidly. Andrew had pushed the team hard to implement extensive new system safeguards, virus strategies, log-on procedures and access monitoring protocols. Internal subterfuge was difficult to counter especially when the adversary knew what you were doing. The mole was highly intelligent and carefully executed his plans. It had become a cat and mouse game. So far, he had evaded all of their security traps. It frustrated Andrew that his team was in a constant reaction mode.

Why not? The mole knows exactly what we’re doing. Our only hope is he or she makes a mistake. The mole is someone we like and trust, but who is it? Who would betray their friends, and act as if nothing happened when the mole killed people he or she knew and worked with?

Scott Kimberly walked into Andrew’s office and disrupted his thoughts. “Good morning, Andrew. Have a good weekend?”

“Morning, Scott. Good to see you. We had a great time in Albuquerque. How about you?”

“Fantastic. I met a fascinating woman at the golf course, who turned out to be the local golf pro. We spent the weekend on the greens. She’s good, but I held my own with her. You know, this is the first woman I’ve met socially since my wife died several years ago. It was nice to have female companionship again.”

“What’s her name?”

“Andrea Nicolas, but she goes by Andy … yes, she’s distantly related.”

Andrew smiled. “How bad did she beat you?”

Scott shoved himself back in his chair, grinning sheepishly. “Wasn’t too bad. Only a hundred bucks and two dinners. Could have been worse.”

“Sounds like you’ve met your match,” Andrew said.

Scott flashed Andrew a half face grin. “You know, I really like Andy. She’s charming, lovely and one hell of a golfer. It’s been hard living alone so long and not having anyone or anything in my life except work. It was great meeting someone who shares my interests, and she’s easy to talk to. I love to golf with her. If last weekend is any indication though, I think my checking accounts in serious jeopardy.”

“Well, don’t bet.”

“Hell, betting is half the fun. Besides, I think I can beat her. She caught me on an off day.”

Andrew couldn’t help grinning. “Teri and Michelle will be anxious to meet her, and so am I. Maybe we could all have an evening on the town together.”

“I’m sure she will enjoy meeting all of you… not to change the subject, but I want to discuss the next flight with you.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I was okay to sit it out on the beach last time because I knew you needed backup here. I really want to go on this trip.” Scott leaned forward and touched his fist on the desk. His studied Andrew’s face, anxious for a response. “I have to be a part of this flight. I’ve spent my whole life teaching relativistic mechanics. Now I have a chance to experience its implementation first hand. I really want to be a part of the flight crew.”

Andrew thought about the time Scott busted his chops after his orals at Cal Tech and let him sit in the hallway for an hour and a half while he and his professor pals talked about their golf game. He pretended he was thinking and fiddled with his Qtab for effect. After an appropriate delay, he gave Scott a sad look, which he purposefully held for a few moments.

Scott stared at him, studying Andrew’s face, concerned about his response.

Finally, holding the sad look as long as he could, Andrew laughed and broke into a smile. “I was planning to talk to you about it today. You beat me to the punch. Daniel told me you were stewing over this. We really did need you to stay behind last time. Too many things might have required your expertise to save our butts. I think the situation has changed, so there’s no way I would leave you out of this one. You and Daniel are both on the flight team.

Scott let his breath out in a whoosh. “What a relief. Daniel and I’ve been talking about nothing else. He told me Michelle wasn’t too keen on the idea, but she knows how much it means to him, so she won’t stand in his way.” Scott took a swig of coffee before he went on. “Great! I’ll look forward to reviewing the crew assignments. Andrew, this trip’s important to me. I don’t think I could stand being left behind.”

“It could be very dangerous. The mole’s still active and there’s no telling what he might do next. I still remember you asking me if I had a death wish, in our relativity class, when I told you I wanted to work on the development of wormhole technology. Sometimes, I think maybe I do.”

“Anyone who would do this must have,” Scott said, “Including me. Mole or no mole, I want to go,” he said. “You know, I wouldn’t have missed the excitement of this project for anything. Thank you for asking me to join the team. You have no idea how much it’s meant to me.” Scott rose to leave the office but turned at the door.

Grinning, he said, “A little orals payback, huh?”

Andrew laughed, and nodded. “I couldn’t help myself.”

Andrew chuckled as he heard Scott laughing on the way back to his office. He leaned back in his chair, gazed out the window at the beautiful day, thought about the upcoming flight, and Teri. He dialed in K234 on his Qtab and Kala appeared. “Hi, can you attend the preflight meeting?”

“Sure. I think it’ll be interesting. I wish I could go on the flight. I’ve reviewed the flight plan and all of the details about Tango 555, and I could up link into the ship computers.”

“Well, despite our new procedures, I have a gut feeling we’re going to need you here. Our new retinal scanner verifies the authority of everyone who accesses the system and outside access is restricted. We’re now crosschecking access of any routine testing, sub routine incorporations or simple code changes against the entry times, passwords, and work stations. There’s no way for anyone to defeat the firewall,” Andrew said. “We’re hacker proof as far as I know. On the surface, our new safeguards appear solid.”

“I agree. I’ve personally checked every change made to the code, performed an extensive analysis of the log-on protocols, and made sure no one was bypassing our procedures. The virus scanner and detection algorithms are the most sophisticated in the world. No one could design a better virus and system protection methodology than we have.”

“I know it looks good, but I’m still nervous,” Andrew said. “I wonder how an insider might find a way to bypass or fool our new procedures. If they do, and introduce a virus, it is going to be something no one has ever seen before and extremely smart. Never seen before may be a clue. Why don’t you think on it?”

“Maybe the idea of something new, out of the box idea, is worth pondering,” Kala said. “Interesting thought. FYI, I implemented the change we discussed.”

“Hope it helps. I don’t know what else we can possibly do. Well, it’s almost time for the preflight meeting. See you there.”

 

Marc called the meeting to order. “Everyone listen up. Our final mission is Tango 555. It’s a young solar system near Sirius 232 and about twenty-five light-years from Earth. Astronomers recently obtained new evidence from Outpost indicating this solar system has a planetary arrangement similar to ours, and possibly an Earth-like planet.”

“Who’s on the crew list this time?” Teri asked.

“Captain Starling plans to have the same ship’s company as last time, including Andrew, who will serve as the ship’s Science Officer. In addition, we’ve added Daniel Forrester and Scott Kimberly as mission specialists. We’re also going to have a small special operations contingent headed by Major Tobey. Dr. Tarnak will remain at the MCC and be responsible for overseeing the system during flight operations.”

One of the engineers raised his hand. “Dr. Anthony, how long do we have to complete flight preparations? There’s still a lot to do.”

“We depart one week from today at 0900. The trip should be a short one. We’ll transit the wormhole to Tango 555, map and survey the planets within the solar system, and come home. There won’t be any high risk mapping tasks like last time. The mission shouldn’t take more than a week and this is the last scheduled flight event of the program. Any other questions?”

“Yes, what are we going to be doing after this?” Lars asked.

“Good question. We start transferring the technology to the ISA who will be responsible for managing wormhole operations from here on. After that, I don’t know.”

A young special ops soldier, Corporal Donovan, raised her hand. “Sir, we’re worried about the weapon systems. We heard about the issue with the antimatter torpedoes. Will we be able to rely on them this time? And what’s being done to ensure saboteurs won’t have access to the shipboard fire control computers?”

“Teri, would you please update us on your efforts?”

“A virus caused the antimatter torpedo issue on the last flight. We’ve added some new antivirus routines and scan strategies to make the scanners more effective. Further, we’ve installed a more robust firewall to prevent break-in. Log-on to all systems is being tracked, cross-referenced and monitored closely. Retinal scanners are required for system log-on. If anyone tries to log on and insert or modify any code, we’ll be able to determine who, what, and, when. If this does happen, an alarm will sound and alert security and the MCC flight director.”

“Pardon me, Doctor, but what about the shipboard systems?” Sergeant Lopez asked.

“Access to the on-board computers and weapons will be highly restricted. They’ve been completely isolated from all outside systems and retinal identity will be required for login.”

“Thanks, Teri,” Marc said. “No one except the flight crew will have access to the spacecraft without a special pass, and any non-crewmember will be escorted by security officers. I’m also pleased to announce, starting tomorrow, the special ops team will guard and monitor all shipboard weapon systems and fire control computer access.”

“First watch starts at 0800, Dr. Anthony,” Major Tobey replied. “One more question. The above sounds great, but it would be nice to have some back up for the weapon systems. Is this being addressed?”

“We’re packing some heat on this trip,” Marc said. “We’ve installed a new rail gun and higher-powered laser cannons to back up the antimatter torpedoes. FYI, we off-loaded the Pegasus, our space truck, and replaced it with the Oriskany. She’s a smaller, more maneuverable military tactical shuttlecraft. It’s capable of both ground support and atmospheric and non-atmospheric combat engagements. It has enormous firepower and capable of destroying any asteroid we might encounter. It’s also equipped to support a rapid launch capability using an android pilot. Andrew, do you have anything to add?”

“Not right now.”

“Gentlemen, if you will, please plug your Qtab into the Q-ports so you can download the flight plan, survey requirements, and crew assignments. If anyone has any questions or comments, please see Dr. Stevenson or me after the meeting. It’s going to be a fast week,” Marc said. “Okay team, let’s get to work.”

 

Chapter 34

 

Starship Orion

 

The MCC bustled with activity as they prepared for the imminent flight through the wormhole. Teri looked at Marc, and said, “The system diagnostics and virus testing is complete, and as far as my station’s concerned, we’re ready to initiate.”

Marc adjusted his tie and sat up. “Very good, Teri. That’s what I was waiting for.”

He switched into the main screen and announced, “Attention, this is the flight director. We’re starting the final countdown to launch. All subsystem team leaders enter launch status. Okay, team, here we go. Orion, stand by for wormhole initiation. Computer, initiate wormhole end point Tango 555, using intercept point alpha.”

 

“WORKING. WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS INITIATED. ACCESSING TIME AND SPATIAL COORDINATES FOR THE BRIDGE. STARTUP SEQUENCE COMPLETE. STANDBY FOR WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS COMPLETION.”

 

Andrew accessed the systems metrics displays to check for any signs of instability. Much to his relief, everything looked solid … so far. He glanced at Kimberly and gave him the thumbs up. Scott’s body language made it clear he was very nervous. Andrew chuckled to himself. He understood because he felt the same way on the first flight. Not to mention the fact that he was also a bundle of nerves. Not about the flight but the mole and what he might do next.

 

“DESIGN SIMULATION AND VALIDATION COMPLETE. SYSTEM FIELD AND MATTER SYNTHESIZERS ARE ON-LINE. DATA TRANSFER IS IN PROCESS. ALL SYSTEM METRICS ARE GO.”

 

Captain Starling sat in his command chair. “MCC, we’re ready to commence flight operations at your direction.”

 

“WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS COMPLETE. THE DESTINATION END-POINT TANGO 555 IS LOCKED IN. THE SYSTEM IS READY FOR LAUNCH OPERATIONS.”

 

Orion, the wormhole is stable and all systems are GO. Tango 555 has been dialed in and you are cleared to launch,” Marc reported.

“Roger, flight. Knuckles, take us in. Give me antigravity (AG) level three. Inertial dampers (IDs) on and give me half thrusters. Select forward and rear views on the screens. Switch MCC to the utility screen.”

“Roger, Captain. AG3, IDs on, and thrusters at 0.5. MCC on utility.”

Knuckles piloted the ship with the skill of a musical virtuoso playing a Stradivarius violin. He ran his fingers over the control panel, and the ship lifted out of the launch port and headed towards the wormhole.

“Knuckles, quarter reaction power and take us in.”

“Aye, Aye, sir. Quarter reaction coming up.” Knuckles eased the throttle forward, and the ship approached the wormhole’s central axis dead center. A few minutes later, Knuckles announced, “We’ve entered the bridge.”

Much to Starling’s relief, the turbulence, and roughness experienced in entering the throat of the wormhole on the first trip was absent.

“Inertial dampers on, AG off and set gravity level one,” he commanded.

“Roger, Captain. AG off, IDs on and gravity level one has been set in.”

“Give me full reaction power, Knuckles. Main screen forward view.”

“Aye, sir.” Knuckles pushed the throttle forward and the starship accelerated into the wormhole.

Scott opened his eyes and pinched himself.

Daniel looked over at him. “What’s wrong, Scott? Don’t you trust your students?”

Scott chuckled. “Is my nervousness so obvious?”

“Yeah, but no worry. Who wouldn’t be?”

“You know, I’ve dealt with relativity and other such matters my whole career. I still remember the discussions the three of us had in my class on relativistic physics. Funny, I always considered wormholes an academic exercise. I never dreamed two of my students would actually pull this off. Now here we are … in a starship traveling through a wormhole to another world, light-years from Earth. I can’t believe this is actually happening to me. Amazing.”

Daniel smiled and nodded agreement.

It looks like my changes smoothed out the wormhole entry, Andrew thought. Code K234 flashed on the console monitor, and a simple message appeared.

 

‘Good luck, bro. I’ll be here if you need me. I see the field equation mods worked. K.’

 

Andrew replied,

 

‘Thanks, Worked great, Sis. Should be a walk in the park. A.’

 

If the data Outpost provided was correct, Tango 555 might be very similar to Earth. If it was, many possibilities opened up including colonization. Will life forms be present? Could the planet support human life or are there indignant life forms present? Is it resource rich? What a fantastic opportunity, Andrew thought

Early space travel to other worlds meant a long time in space and great personal sacrifices by the crews. Wormhole technology would usher in a completely new space travel paradigm. Crewmembers could now have families and live somewhat of a normal life.

 

Lt. Commander Ralph Thompson, the ship’s navigator, was concerned about an anomaly in the navigation computer’s astronomical presentation. “Captain, something’s not right with the star maps. Everything appears normal, but there’s an almost imperceptible time-dependent shift in our end destination coordinates.”

“What’s the issue, Mr. Thompson?”

“It appears our end-point coordinates are changing, and we’re being routed away from Tango 555. The changes are so small it’s almost imperceptible. I’m puzzled as to why the nav computer didn’t notify us.”

“Can you determine our end-point?”

“Not yet, sir. I’m still working the solution.”

Starling keyed his comm. “Dr. Stevenson, is there any reason why the MCC navigation computers should be changing the end-point coordinates of the wormhole?”

“No, Captain. Let me check.” Andrew switched his video intercom to the astrophysics lab. “Daniel, you and Scott helped write the code for the navigation system. Is there anything that would cause an end-point coordinate shift?”

“No. Something must have gone wrong,” Daniel replied.

“Captain, I suggest we contact MCC and advise them of the situation. Surely they’ve detected the same thing by now,” Andrew said.

“Mission Control this is Orion. We’re detecting a time-dependent shift in the end-point coordinates of the wormhole. Can you please check and advise?” the captain requested.

“We’re aware of the issue and we’re working it,” Marc replied.

Tarnak double-checked the MCC navigation system, and the results were identical. “Flight, this is Navigation. The coordinate shift reported by the Orion is real. We’ve confirmed it. Something’s definitely wrong. The ship and MCC nav computers should have detected the problem. These changes will vector the ship way off course. Give me a minute, and I’ll run the numbers.”

Lars and Tarnak ran a subroutine to coordinate the ship’s position with their point in space and interpolate its new position. The navigation computer’s astronomical program indicated without corrective action, they would wind up near a planet, Ziron 343, clearly five light-years off their planned course; a planet with a surface temperature of twelve hundred degrees C.

“Flight, this is Nav. We’ve computed the end coordinates. The ship will be misdirected by five light-years to a planet they don’t even want to go near.”

“Can we correct it?”

“We’re working a solution now, Marc.”

Orion, we’ve run the numbers. It looks like you’re being shifted off course by five light-years. Something’s wrong with the nav computers. We’re not sure what it is. We’ll get back to you shortly.”

Andrew pondered their options. It is possible to vacate the wormhole. The danger is, if we do, we might never find our way home, or die a natural death before we got back — if we got back at all. Like it or not, we have to ride it out. I’ve never run a model to simulate the moving of a wormhole with a starship transiting through it. We could wind up in a parallel universe or in some other dimension.

 

STL

Mission Control Center

 

It took Teri, Tarnak, and Kala several hours to identify the corrupted code and stop the coordinate shift.

“Thank Goodness, we’ve got his thing under control,” Teri said, wiping her brow. “Let’s see if we can correct the navigation algorithm.”

Tarnak entered new code in the navigation computer. The coordinates of the wormhole changed again. A strange system anomaly overrode the new navigation computer coding, vectored the wormhole to a new location, jumbled the nav computer code, erased the flight history registry, and deleted the wormhole presentation from the star map. The navigation coordinates made no sense. They had no idea where the ship was or if it still existed. The display normally showing the Orion and the bridge was blank. The Orion was gone.

Teri shook her head in disbelief. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead trying to relieve her frustration. “What is going on? How do you find something so small in a Galaxy 100,000 light-years across? I can’t believe this. Another virus? How? What if we never find them? Are they still alive? Tarnak, what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, Teri. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. For the life of me, I don’t know. If we can’t reestablish the last known end-points and get control of the computer system, I’m afraid we’ve lost them forever,” he replied.

“Kala, do you have any suggestions?”

“I’ll get back with you. I have some ideas, but it’ll take a little while,” Kala answered. “There’s a simple solution if they think about it. Thankfully, Kimberly’s with them or they’d have no hope of finding out where they were.”

“What do you mean?” Teri asked.

“They could use Pulsars. Kimberly taught astronomy and spatial navigation at Cal Tech so he should be able to figure it out. It’s a good thing Andrew added him to the flight crew. However, unless we can reactivate the wormhole and reestablish the flight history directory, there is no way we can communicate with them. I hate to say it, but unless we solve this problem, and do it very soon, they will never return to Earth.”

 

Starship Orion

 

Captain Starling was trying to maintain the Orion inside of the boundaries of the wormhole. The ship’s warning claxons sounded as the star map and main display showed the wormhole exit immediately ahead.

“Knuckles, take us back to one quarter reaction. Mr. Thompson, record the star charts and spatial coordinate location at the wormhole exit.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Knuckles reduced power. “Quarter reaction laid in.”

The ship exited the wormhole, and they found themselves in an unknown part of space. Without warning, the wormhole shutdown and disappeared from the star map.

We survived the transit, but where are we? What happened to the wormhole? Andrew asked himself.

Starling rubbed his palms over his face. “Mr. Thompson, make sure you have the exact relative end-point coordinates of the wormhole locked into the system, and try to find out where we are.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Thompson ran the navigation computer through the astronomical charts trying to locate their current position. “Computer, perform a star chart match and try to locate our position,” the commander ordered. “Compute end point coordinates using current star sources.”

 

“WORKING. THE ASTRONOMICAL LIBRARY DOES NOT CORRELATE WITH THE LOCAL STAR SYSTEMS. INSUFFICIENT DATA TO DETERMINE OUR POSITION. END-POINT COORDINATES CALCULATED AND STORED.”

 

“Captain, we’re not at Tango 555 for certain,” Thompson reported. “I have no idea how far we are from Earth, or if we’re even in the Milky Way Galaxy. The computers can’t correlate our position with any star system in our library. We’re lost in space. We’ve arrived at some solar system, but it sure isn’t where we intended.”

“Andrew, can you guys go down to the astronomical lab and help sort this out?”

“We’ll try, Captain.

“Keep me informed of your progress.”

Yes, sir. Andrew replied.

Andrew headed down to the lab in a quandary. Looks like the mole struck again, how in the world did he defeat our safeguards?

 

Mission Control Center

 

Teri was frustrated. “Tarnak, The system’s behaving erratically, and there’s no reason the nav system should malfunction this way. It doesn’t make sense. All tests are running properly. Why did the wormhole shut down? Worse yet, what erased the flight history registry?”

“I don’t know” he replied. “Maybe we have another virus.”

“Marc, something screwed up the nav computer coding, and we can’t seem to get it under control. Every time we think we have it, everything changes. The frustrating thing is we’re not able to access the final end-point coordinates; the flight history registry has been erased; and the contents permanently deleted from the system.”

“Teri, you, Kala, and Tarnak have to establish the last end-points. If you don’t, we won’t be able to get them back. Please solve this problem!”

“Marc, we’re doing everything possible. We can’t find any reason for the failure. It has to be a stinking virus.”

I’m at my wits end. No one except a close insider, very knowledgeable of our work, could have escaped our traps and inserted a new virus. It has to be a member of my virus team. Tarnak, Kala, Lars and those two DOD guys. Do we really know if those two are from the DOD security office, she wondered. She was concerned the man she loved and her friends might never return, and the thought filled her with an overpowering sense of gloom.

“Okay,” Marc said. “I hope the captain has the sense to stay put. If we can’t reestablish the last known end-point coordinates of the wormhole our flight crew may be lost forever. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Is Kala involved?”

“She’s working on it. We’ll figure this out. But, it’s going to take a while,” Tarnak replied.

Lars joined Teri and Tarnak. “What can I do to help?”

“We have to reestablish the wormhole end-points; however, with the flight history registry contents permanently deleted, it seems like an impossible task,” Teri said. “We need to start looking for a virus.”

“It could be something else,” Lars suggested. I doubt that a virus is involved.”

“A virus is the only logical explanation,” said Tarnak.

“Let’s get to work.” She brushed her hair back. I’m going to do an in-depth diagnostic analysis in concert with the virus scanners. Maybe we’ll find something.”

It is going to be a long night, she thought. I hope we can solve this crazy thing. I wonder where they are. I hope they’re safe.

Kala, was working with the scanners, sifting through the entire system code, and found nothing suspicious. Every analysis technique they employed struck out. Teri scratched her head, very baffled. If it is a virus, it has to have an enormously brilliant anti-detection strategy built in. I bet it’ll strike again. I’m going to find this thing if it is the last thing I do. I wonder how Kala is doing.

She dialed in K234 and Kala appeared. “What have you found?”

“We’ve tried every method known to sort this out and so far we haven’t been able to find any clue about what is causing our problem. I’m certain there is a virus in the system. It’s eluding the scanners as well as every diagnostic routine I’ve tried. This thing is super-intelligent. Somehow it seems to know what our strategy is before we apply it. Tarnak, do you have any ideas?” Kala asked.

“This thing may be decomposing itself. Years ago, we encountered self-decomposing viruses on Kandar, and they’re almost impossible to detect. How about we try some techniques we’ve used on Kandar? I’ll upload the algorithms so both of you can look them over. They may help.”

“Go for it. I’m at my wits end.” Teri said. Kala may be our last hope of getting our guys back, she thought.

Chapter 35

 

Starship Orion

In orbit above MP-1

 

Andrew, Daniel, and Scott searched the star maps, but this part of space was not in the ship’s astronomical library. The star mapping and pattern matching routines drew a blank.

“There may be a way to figure this thing out. Maybe we can play a simple navigation game,” Scott said.

“Last time I looked we didn’t have a navigation constellation orbiting this plant, and I don’t think a compass will do us any good,” said Daniel.

“I know wiseass. Look, the cosmos has its own built-in navigation system if you know how to use it.”

“What do you mean?”

“To pinpoint an exact position in three dimensional space, you need six points. When you intersect those six points, you define your position exactly relative to them in a given volume of space.”

“How does a point in space locate us? A point is just a point unless you know where the point is relative to something else.”

“Glad you asked. The universe is filled with pulsars, and each has a distinct signature or pulsing frequency. If we can locate six, whose positions we know relative to Earth, we can determine our exact position relative to them. Once we have this information, it’s simply a matter of triangulating from Earth to where we are and eureka — problem solved. I checked the specs, and I know our ship’s telescope system is capable of doing this. ”

The men grinned at each other, and Andrew commented, “Brilliant, Scott.”

Scott smiled and quipped, “See, I’m more than a pretty face and an expert golfer.”

“I bet Andy would disagree with the golfer bit,” Daniel cracked.

“I don’t think you’re pretty either,” Daniel added.

“Forrester, I should have flunked your ass out when I had a chance,” Kimberly replied, raising his eyebrow.

“You would have missed me, Doc,” Daniel said, laughing. “What would you have done if I hadn’t been around to give you a rough time?”

“Slept better.”

Andrew got on the intercom display. “Captain, Kimberly’s come up with a plan to find out where we are.”

“What is it?”

After Andrew explained, the captain nodded and gave Thompson a thumb up.

“It will take a while to run the analysis.”

“Great work. Mr. Thompson, please assist Dr. Kimberly in the lab.”

“I’m on my way, Captain.”

While Scott and Thompson searched for their pulsars, Daniel and Andrew focused their attention on the strange solar system the virus had randomly abandoned them in. It was an interesting system consisting of a binary star and five outer planets. The captain parked the Orion twenty-five kilometers above the fifth planet, which had two small moons. Out of curiosity, Andrew ran a sensor survey of the planet. To his surprise, the data showed a very distinct elemental frequency line and a strange, but somewhat vaguely familiar, radiation signature.

Wonder what this is, he thought as he initiated computer analysis of the data. After a minute, the computer confirmed the results he suspected.

“Daniel, take a look at this data! Is it what I think it is?”

“I don’t know, dude, let me see what you got.” He studied the data. “This is the spectral signature of Selenium crystals. From what I can tell it’s an enormous deposit and worth a bloody fortune. I bet this single deposit alone would provide energy for Earth’s power systems for thousands of years. Hey, Scott take a gander.”

Scott stopped his pulsar search and walked over to the console. As he reviewed the data, his eyes widened. “This is amazing. I’ve never seen or heard of such a vast deposit of these crystals. We have to search like crazy on Earth to extract it from Pyrite and obtain a few kilos of the stuff. Alternatively, get it through the refinement of copper. At any rate, it’s not plentiful.”

“If our discovery pans out, this planet will be the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy,” Daniel surmised. “Without a doubt, it’ll get tagged The Mineral Planet. What are the atmospherics like?”

“Computer, run an atmospheric analysis,” Andrew requested.

 

“ANALYSIS COMPLETE. NITROGEN CONTENT IS 78.4 PERCENT, OXYGEN LEVEL 21.7 PERCENT, ARGON 0.93 PERCENT. OTHER TRACE GASES LESS THAN 1.0 PERCENT. SURFACE TEMPERATURE, 34.2 DEGREES CELSIUS, HUMIDITY 85.3 PERCENT. GRAVITY IS THE SAME AS EARTHS.”

 

“Any trace gases harmful to humans?” Andrew asked.

 

“NO, DOCTOR. THE ATMOSPHERE IS BREATHABLE.”

 

“Interesting, the oxygen nitrogen content is almost identical to Earths. We can breathe it. We sure won’t need a coat. Guys, this is so monumental, I think we have to investigate. It will be big news back home.”

Daniel gave Andrew a sideways what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about look. “Andrew, are you saying what I think you are?”

“Yeah. We need to go down there and check it out. I’ll ask the captain to come down here so we can discuss it with him.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff? Pardon the clique′, but do you have a pet mouse in your pocket?” Daniel remarked, shaking his head in disbelief.

Captain Starling walked into the Astro lab and approached the science console where the three men sat. He leaned on the console. “Gentlemen, why the excitement? Find our Pulsars?”

Andrew spoke up. “Not yet, Captain. We’ve made another discovery. Check the sensor data.”

The captain’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “This is an enormous Selenium crystal deposit! Is the data correct?”

“It is correct. I know this might sound screwy, but we want to go down to the surface and validate the find. Kimberly’s the expert on pulsars and astronomy, so he’s the best qualified to figure out where we are. Daniel and I want to take the Oriskany down and investigate the find.”

“What about atmospherics? Will you need suits?”

“It’s breathable and fairly tolerable. From what we can see, the planet’s jungle-like. There’s considerable volcanic activity. We don’t plan to be there for an extended time. We need to collect samples and corroborate the sensor data. You and I both know this will be phenomenal news back on Earth, and they’ll want confirmation.”

“I agree. We have to check it out. You know, Andrew, this discovery will justify the entire cost of your project a million times over. I’ll have Knuckles pilot you down, and I want Major Tobey and the entire special ops group to accompany you.”

“Why? We’re only going to take a few samples and come right back. We shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours. No big deal.”

“This is an unknown primordial planet, and you don’t know what you might encounter. The planet could be teaming with predators. No, you need protection. Scott, are you and Ralph okay to continue the search without Andrew and Daniel?”

“No sweat, Captain. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but Ralph and I are doing fine. We’ve already located one of the pulsars.”

“Good. I’ll notify Major Tobey, so he can get his guys ready for the drop. In the meantime, I’ll orbit the planet and do a survey before you go down to the surface. We need more information on this place, particularly any biologics.”

Starling returned to the bridge and sat in his command chair. “Knuckles, take us into a low planet orbit. Maintain twenty thousand.”

“Aye, Captain.” Knuckles adjusted their orbit, and announced, “Orbiting at twenty thousand kilometers.”

“Very well. Computer, sync main screen to the Astro lab sensor scans.”

 

“MAIN SCREEN SYNCHRONIZED. DO YOU WANT SENSOR METRICS DISPLAYED?”

 

“Yes, and give me data on all biological activity,” the captain ordered.

Dense foliage covered the planet’s landmasses, and large bodies of water — similar to oceans — separated its continents. Enormous volcanic activity polluted the sky with ash and smoke, and one very large cone appeared ready to erupt. As they flew over the horizon, the binary suns crossed paths, creating a spectacular light show erupting at the viewing angle. Two gigantic blooms of light emanated over the horizon. Rays of light darted out through the sky with streamers of different colors shooting out like roman candles.

Andrew stared in awe. What a spectacular event.

A level-six hurricane, with a characteristic clockwise movement and spiral clouds, migrated over the ocean in the southern hemisphere, heading for landfall. Boy, I’m sure glad the monster’s moving away from us.

The survey confirmed the captain’s concern. There was considerable biological activity on the planet. Biological activity they knew nothing about.

Enormous electrical storms sporadically occurred everywhere. Lightning lit up the sky as the ground and atmosphere endeavored to equalize the electron distribution between them. Thunderheads, reaching over thirty thousand feet into the sky, illuminated like giant light bulbs turning on and off, exchanging ferocious bolts of lightning back and forth, eager to share electrons. Electrical turbulence and imbalance in the atmosphere caused huge electrical sprites to be ejected into space. They reminded Andrew of ice cream cones and giant jellyfish.

The magnetic variation readouts troubled Andrew. “Computer, plot the magnetic variation and provide a time table.”

 

“WORKING. MAGNETIC VARIATION HAS BEEN MEASURED AND A TIMELINE HAS BEEN CALCULATED.”

 

Andrew reviewed the magnetic data on the science console. Over the next twenty-four hours, they would have stable magnetics to support ground navigation. The compass should work on the surface. It’s going to be rough sledding if it doesn’t.

The captain completed the survey and parked the Orion at the exact arrival coordinates.

“I want to stay close to the exit point of the last known wormhole end-point coordinates,” he explained to the bridge crew.

“Here we are, completely lost and light-years from who knows where. Now we’re getting ready to ride a shuttle down to validate the greatest mineral find ever on a planet possibly teaming with monsters, volcanic eruptions, and horrible electrical storms. I can’t believe we’re really going to do this. It’s insane.” Daniel shook his head in disbelief.

“Yes, but isn’t it exciting?”

“We must be nuts. I know you are, and I’m beginning to think I am too. I think we’re all nuts. You were always getting me in the soup at Tech. Particularly with the women — most of the time.”

“Yeah, but wasn’t it fun?”

Daniel grinned.

 

Major Tobey was in the cargo bay checking his trooper’s equipment. His team included six of the toughest and best-trained special ops soldiers in his command. They were experts in special weapons and tactics, jungle warfare, and experienced in planetary deployment operations. All were highly decorated, especially the Sergeant Major who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and also won the very competitive Top Ranger competition three years in a row.

Before leaving Earth, the major made sure they were equipped with the latest combat assault weapons and support equipment. Their state-of-the-art helmets included built-in voice recognition, navigation, computing capabilities, ranging and targeting, communications, infrared and optical night vision gear.

“Sergeant Major, finish briefing the team and check our scientists out on the assault weapons.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sergeant Major Lee Roy Douglas was the senior non-com in charge. His six-foot four muscular physique competed with any young black athlete in top physical condition. He always had a cigar in his mouth — unlit. He had his team assembled by the shuttle.

“Listen up, people. Donovan, wake up, damn it! Listen Donovan, if you screw up this time and don’t get your shit together, I am going to plant my number twelve so far up your ass, you’ll have to have colon surgery to get it out. Understand?”

“Yeah,” Donovan remarked groggily, barely opening her green eyes.

The Sergeant Major got in her face. “What did you say?” he yelled.

“Yes, sir.”

“Make sure you spray down with insect repellent before we land. The biting bugs are going to be thicker than flies, and very aggressive. I want everyone to have a full load of ammo and at least five extra belts. Wear your vest armor and carry at least twenty impulse and ten fractional grenades. When we set down, unload the gear, and run a quick recon of the surrounding area. Stay in constant communication. If you see anything unusual, report it. Once we have the immediate area secure, we move out.”

“Sergeant Major,” Private T Bone Long asked. “Are we going on a pig hunt or what?”

“All we know is there is considerable biological activity on the planet. We have to stay alert and no screwing off. Rodriquez and Donavan will run point, T Bone, and Gunn rear guard, and Lopez and Martin will stay with me to protect the scientific party. Make sure you have rations for three days. I don’t think we’ll be down there very long, but no sense taking a chance. Check your weapons and get ready to load up. Okay team, lock, and load. Rodriquez?”

“Sir?”

“Make sure Donovan doesn’t get lost this time.”

“Yes, sir, Sergeant Major.” He hit Donovan on the arm.

“Team, don’t you know every day in spec ops is like a desert to be savored. Damn I love this job. It’s time to earn your pay. Let’s saddle up. Make sure your comm is working. Secure your gear and get strapped in. Move it, people.”

Douglas watched carefully as the team checked their equipment and crosschecked each other before they entered the shuttle.

Donovan gave each man a high five as she shuffled between the men to her seat. “All right guys, let’s party!” she yelled out.

The guys responded with a loud “hoorah.”

T Bone Long, a young black warrior, who loved to give Donovan a rough time, piped up and said, “Hey Donovan, anyone ever mistake you for a woman?”

Donovan gave him the finger. “No. How about you, asshole?”

All of the men hooted and laughed at T Bone.

Lopez, who sat beside her smiled. “You’re one bad ass, Donovan. T Bone always gets the short end of the stick when he fucks with you.”

“You got it right, Lope. Let’s get this show on the road. I’m ready to kick some ass!” she hollered, throwing her fists in the air.

Andrew and Daniel were about to enter the hatch when Major Tobey approached.

“Gentlemen, how are you?”

“Excited,” Andrew replied.

“I know your interest is the crystal deposit, but I want each of you to carry an assault rifle and three belts of ammo.”

Daniel and Andrew looked at each other nervously. “Major, we have every confidence in your men to protect us. We feel pretty safe having you escort us.”

“It’s a simple precaution, Dr. Stevenson. If you get separated from us, the weapon will be your only protection.”

“Neither of us has weapons training.”

“I’ve asked the Sergeant Major to check you out before we leave. Okay?”

“Sure,” they agreed.

The major left to attend to other matter as Douglas approached to give the two a quick training session on their weapons. Andrew felt comfortable with the briefing. It was brief, efficient, and thorough.

Tobey examined everyone before he sat down and gave Knuckles a thumb up. “We’re set to go, Commander.”

“Captain, this is the Oriskany. We’re ready for the drop. I’ve uploaded the flight plan in the ship’s computers so you can track our progress.”

Andrew heard the big pumps clear the oxygen from the hanger bay. When completed, the computer announced:

 

“OXYGEN HAS BEEN EVACUATED FROM HANGER BAY 3. DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT AN ENVIRONMENTAL SUIT. SHUTTLE CLEARED FOR LAUNCH.”

 

The Oriskany

 

Knuckles flew the shuttle out of the hanger bay. Once clear, Oriskany’s fight control computer presented Knuckles with a series of circles and rectangles outlining the flight corridor to the designated landing site. He adjusted the flight control cross hairs in the rectangles and started his descent, following the programmed planned glide path. “Take over co-pilot. Everything’s in the computer.”

“Aye, Commander,” the android, responded.

Andrew looked out a portal at the strange world they might have to call home. Its two moons and reddish-blue sky were eerie sights. Electrical storms occurred simultaneously all over the planet. Three great volcanoes poured smoke into the sky, and one had molten lava flowing down its slopes, destroying everything in its path.

This place looks like your worst nightmare, Andrew thought.

The shuttle bounced around violently in the turbulent atmosphere creating havoc with Andrew’s stomach. The spec ops soldiers chatted and fiddled with their gear. Donovan slept, snoring with her mouth open.

These guys don’t get shook about anything — just another day at the office, Andrew thought. He fiddled with his weapon. It still intimidated him.To his relief, the turbulence ceased and the Oriskany’s descent smoothed out. Andrew’s stomach wouldn’t have taken much more. He breathed deeply, and pulled out his motion sickness pills to take one. Daniel saw the bottle and stuck his hand out. Andrew laughed and shook one into this hand.

Knuckles found the landing coordinates and disengaged the co-pilot. He set the Oriskany down at the foot of a hill near the deposit site.

Orion, this is the Oriskany. I have them as close as I can get. This is the only clear spot I could find. All systems are on-line and the landing party is preparing to depart the ship. Is the weather holding? Over.”

“Good job. Yes, the weather’s stable — for now. Please stay with the ship and keep the communications channel open. Tell Tobey to make sure he keeps his comm on. Over.”

“Roger, Orion. By the way, Captain, the droid works pretty well. I didn’t trust him on the landing, but I think it’s a good technology. Oriskany out. Major, we’re set to disembark,” Knuckles announced.

“Very well,” he replied. “Sergeant Major, move ‘em out.”

“Yes, sir. Okay team off your ass. Grab your gear and offload,” the Sergeant Major yelled. “Let’s go people! Stay alert.”

The special ops team rapidly exited the shuttle and fanned out to conduct recon of the surrounding area. Ten minutes later, Sergeant Lopez checked in. “Sergeant Major, everything checks out.”

“Okay. Major, we have a secure perimeter.”

“Very good, Sergeant Major. Dr. Stevenson, if you and Dr. Forrester are ready I think we can move out. Please remember to keep close. I suspect all locals are hostile.”

“We’re ready to go,” Andrew replied. “The ore site’s one kilometer on a heading of twenty-two degrees relative to our current position. I’m amazed Knuckles got us this close. I hope the magnetics hold so we can navigate through this dense jungle.”

Andrew and Daniel picked up their instruments and shouldered their weapons. Andrew had not realized how heavy assault weapons were. Imagine having to carry one of these, helmet, vest armor, the grenades, and five belts of ammo. Oh, well, the special ops guys are in excellent physical shape. He didn’t like carrying a gun, but the training the Sergeant Major had given them was clear and thorough. It comforted him to know he could protect himself if necessary.

This strange world and the unknowns they might face were running rampant through his mind. He heard deep growls, screams and other alien sounds in the surrounding jungle. The volcanic eruptions, electrical storms and a jungle overrun with predators made him realize how foolish he was to think he and Daniel could have set foot on this planet alone.

Guess the captain was right. I’m glad the soldiers came with us. Daniel and I wouldn’t have lasted two hours before some hungry animal got us. I think it is going to be a nightmare getting to the ore site — if all of us get there, and back alive.

Chapter 36

 

MP-1

The jungle

 

The jungle was thick and overgrown. The air so hot and humid it was hard to breathe and his clothes stuck to his skin. A recent volcanic eruption had polluted the air with ash, causing Andrew to cough. Sweat rolled down his forehead and made his eyes burn.

The shrill cries of winged animals flying overhead, and the ear splitting high frequency scream of some creature in the trees above them caused Andrew to cringe every time he heard it.

The screams of those animals is unsettling as hell. I sure hope there aren’t any snakes or poisonous spiders. I can’t wait to get the deposit site validated and get off this place. Maybe Daniel was right. I must be nuts for wanting to come down here.

The trees were unlike any he had ever seen. Small, razor-sharp thorns covered the leaf-type structures, and three-inch thorns covered the trunks.

“Andrew, do you see those crazy looking trees?” Daniel asked.

“Yeah. If the Biologics use them for scratching posts, we’re in big trouble.”

Major Tobey signaled his men to move out. Travel through the jungle was difficult, and progress slowed by having to use machetes to chop their way through the dense undergrowth. The thorns cut and tore everyone’s clothing and flesh as they moved through the dense foliage.

Some of the animal sounds emanating from the jungle were unlike anything he had ever heard. One sounded like a terrified woman screaming at a high pitch. Shivers ran up and down Andrew’s spine every time he heard it. Others growled and roared like hungry tigers prowling for a meal — any meal. Meat-eaters, he thought. “Hey, Daniel, guess we should have brought some steak sauce with us. We’d taste better.”

“They won’t need it. They’ll tenderize us on those trees,” he replied. “I hope we’re not invited for dinner.”

After hacking their way through a hundred yards of dense jungle, they broke into a small clearing. The snarls of a large animal, as it moved around out of view, caused them to stop and listen. The special ops team took their weapons off safety. Everyone strained to get a glimpse of this “thing” moving so easily through the dense undergrowth.

It crashed through the brush and ran fast, on its hind legs, across the clearing. The creature looked like a ten-foot tall cross between a praying mantis, and an ancient Earth dinosaur called a velociraptor. Large carnivore type teeth filled its eighteen-inch long mouth. Eight-inch, razor sharp claws tipped its front feet. A scaly, dirty orange color with brown and greenish splotches covered its thick hide. It looked like a meat-eater. Everyone crouched down and kept quiet, hoping it wouldn’t see them.

“Andrew, I sure hope those things don’t like fresh meat,” Daniel whispered, giving Andrew a ‘what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here’ look.

“What’s wrong, Daniel. Starting to feel like a filet?”

“Yeah, medium rare. Stevenson, the next time you have a hair brained idea like this, keep it to yourself.”

Man, I guess we were lucky — this time. The thing was hideous, Andrew mused as the ferocious animal turned away from where they were. Glad it’s after something else.

The team froze in place until the animal disappeared back through the brush. A few minutes later, they heard a loud, agonizing scream, followed by the roar of a predator announcing its kill. Several other animals returned its call.

“They’re pack hunters, Daniel—dangerous and effective.”

Daniel gave him a crooked grin and shook his head. “It just keeps getting better, huh, Andrew.”

The major waited until the sounds of the creature’s movements faded away, and signaled the team to move on. Andrew was more than glad to get some distance between them and the beast they luckily evaded.

The flora astonished Andrew. One species was so amazing he had to point it out to Daniel. The twelve-foot high plant resembled a Venusians flytrap. Like all of the plants they encountered, thorns covered the exterior surfaces. Multiple, twenty-foot long tentacles grew out of the bottom circumference of the plant. Long, vicious looking, sharp spurs protruded all over the tops of each one. Several rows of sharp teeth filled its mouth and digestive chamber. The tentacles were fascinating. They appeared to be heat sensitive devices and slithered around on the ground, searching for prey.

One ‘flytrap’ had captured an animal and was slowly pulling its catch to its digestive chamber. A drool squirted out as it smacked its mouth— anticipating its meal. Its prey, which resembled a large hairy pig with big tusks, squealed loudly and fought to free itself. Struggle as it might, its fate was sealed.

Andrew looked away and continued. The pig squealed loudly as the plant pulled it into its digestive compartment and bit down. The pig let out a loud, painful squeal as it died.

 

Rodriquez and Donovan, the point guards, moved as silently as possible, hoping to avoid contact with the weird animals prowling in the jungle. They stopped to check their heading. As Donovan drank from her canteen, a mantis-type creature broke through the clearing ahead and spotted them. It roared as it ran towards them with its mouth open, showing its huge teeth, anxious to bite. Donovan dropped her canteen, fired off a short burst, and spun around to run.

“Haul ass, Rod,” she screamed. “That fuckers after us. Run!”

Rodriquez fired several shots at the monster. The bullets had little effect; its hide was extremely thick. The two raced back toward the group, yelling in their mikes. The creature closed on them as the foot race continued. Rodriquez tripped and fell face first into the dirt.

“Donovan!” he screamed. “I’m down. Help me. It’s gonna get me!”

She turned. Weapon on full auto, she shot the animal in the head. The bullets bounced off. The creature growled and snapped its teeth at her, but continued its pursuit towards Rodriquez. Donovan kept shooting at it, yelling profanities at the top of her lungs.”

She shot the mantis in the nose as tried to bite Rodriquez. The bullets lodged in its flesh, and blood squirted out. Enraged, it shook his head, stomped its feet, and sprinted at her. She fired off two more rounds and took off as fast as she could towards the main group’s position, the mantis right behind her.

“Rod, get up and run!” she yelled over her shoulder. The mantis closed on her. She knew she couldn’t out-run it, especially in the heavy foliage. She zigzagged and jumped over obstacles. It was just enough to keep the mantis off balance and gave her a short lead. She could hear its jaws snapping; felt it’s hot breath on her back and neck.

“I’m coming!” Rodriquez screamed. He took off after Donovan who was heading directly for the main group, the mantis right behind her growling, snapping, and lunging at her.

“Major, a mantis thing is chasing us and coming your way,” Donovan yelled on her head mike. “Our bullets didn’t faze it. Get ready. We’re only ten meters from you.”

The other team members heard the noise heading toward them and prepared to fire. As Donovan ran into the clearing, they opened up on the creature. The bullets had no effect —only irritated it.

The mantis roared, snapped its teeth, and abruptly turned and left as Rodriquez appeared.

 

Everything happed so fast, Andrew failed to get one shot off. He looked at Daniel and shook his head. “We were lucky this time. The sounds of our guns and the bullets stinging its hide probably confused it.”

“I wouldn’t count on it happening again.”

Everyone took the pause to reload.

Rodriquez scooted up to Donovan. “Thanks. You saved my ass. I thought the fucker was gonna eat me for sure.”

“No sweat, Rod. Actually, I was helping him. You would have probably given him indigestion,” she laughed.

Shortly after the mantis disappeared into the bush, two twelve-feet wide, winged bat-like creatures with large claws and long fangs flew over, screaming loudly searching for something to eat. They swooped down and tried to grab one of the spec ops men, but broke off the attack when the Sergeant Major went full auto on them.

“You better leave you ugly bastards!” he screamed. “Shit, now we have to worry about air attacks.”

Andrew watched as a bat thing dove into the leafy canopy, emerging with a huge snake in its talons. The snake was so large; the bat thing struggled to fly with it.

Guess that answers my snake question. Like Daniel said, it just keeps gettin’ better.

The major scanned the area and signaled the team to move out. After a half hour of chopping their way through the dense undergrowth, they stopped to rest. Progress was slow and tiring. Andrew and Daniel sat down and took out their canteens. Their clothing was torn and soaked with perspiration and dirt. Their legs and arms were cut and scratched in numerous places, and bloody. The blood attracted bugs who attempted to feed on their wounds. Sweat rolled down Andrew’s back. His eyes and lungs burned from the pollution the volcanoes belched into the air. The scratches on his arms and legs felt like they were on fire from the sweat and grime and the insect repellent. Pulling out an antiseptic, he poured it on the cuts. He bit his tongue to keep from yelling.

Who knows what kind of bugs live in this jungle, Andrew thought. Hope this stuff hurts ’em worse than it does me. Well, the insect repellent has helped.

“Can I use some of you disinfectant?” Daniel asked. “I feel like I’ve been through a thrashing machine. Everything in this damn jungle has thorns.” He yelped as he poured the antiseptic on his cuts.

Major Tobey walked over to Andrew and Daniel and sat beside them. “How are you two holding up?”

“We’re hanging in there, Major,” Andrew replied. “I feel like I’ve been on a ten mile jog. This heat and humidity’s a killer. The thorns don’t help much either.”

“No shit,” Daniel added, wiping the sweat from his brow. Yelping as he poured more of the bug killer on his wounds.

The major chuckled and nodded in empathy. “Mining this planet is going to be one dangerous job.”

Andrew thought for a moment. “They will most likely install a force field around the site to protect the miners. The dangerous part will be setting the force field structure in place. I suppose they’ll use temporary paralysis equipment when they encounter the big animals. At least the construction and security crews will know what they’re facing beforehand.”

Tobey nodded. “Are you ready to move out?”

“I guess so. Sure hope we don’t run into any more of those mantis things,” Andrew remarked.

The major stood up and turned to his guys. “Okay, team. Let’s move out. Everyone stay close.” He slung his weapon and headed into the jungle.

The Sergeant Major spoke out. “Load some impulse grenades. We’re gonna need some fire power.”

They hacked their way through the dense jungle for four hours and were still a half kilometer from the site. Everyone was tired, tattered, and exhausted.

Four mantises had stalked the group and waited in ambush. The attack was swift and deadly. Two creatures triangulated on Sergeant Lopez. The first grabbed him in its mouth and bit down hard. Lopez screamed, and blood squirted out of the wounds in his chest. A second bit off his leg. The men fired on the animals to try to drive them away. It was too late to help Lopez.

Two other mantises roared loudly and charged the men. The Sergeant Major pulled out an impulse grenade and threw it, killing one of them. The other mantis stopped to look at the one lying on the ground with its belly blown out — no doubt to assess it as a meal. It decided to take the meal the first was enjoying. The two creatures fought for a few minutes, then quit and finished what was left of Lopez.

Two additional mantises emerged out of the jungle and started eating the dead mantis, tearing big chunks of flesh from its body with each bite. Blood and bits of flesh dripped from their mouths as they chewed the meat.

Tobey signaled the team to ease away. They continued chopping their way through the dense undergrowth for what seemed like an hour, but, in fact, it was only a few minutes.

The Major signaled them to stop. Except for the now familiar sounds coming from the flying and tree-borne animals, it seemed safe, but it was getting dark.

 

“Men, set up camp here,” Tobey ordered. “I don’t think we should travel at night. Lord knows what the night shift is like. Sergeant Major, post your guard.”

“Yes, Major. Gunn, you and T Bone have first watch — two hour intervals. Listen up, people. I want everyone to sterilize and dress all cuts. We don’t know what kinds of bugs are crawling around here, so I don’t want to take a chance of infection.”

The men started a small fire and made coffee. The meals were normal rations from their packs, called quick nutritious meals, or QNMs. It felt good to relax, have a bite to eat and a cup of hot coffee. The night brought with it dropping temperatures, and the warm beverage hit the spot.

Andrew sat by the fire next to Daniel nervously fiddling with his cup hoping the creatures didn’t attack again. Sure hope the fire keeps them away.

“We should find the deposit site within a couple of hours in the morning. I suggest we collect a few samples, take the readings, and get back to the ship before dark. I don’t want to spend another night here,” Daniel said.

“Suits me fine. I can’t wait to get off this crazy planet. Man, it’s starting to get cold. You know, it’s strange to look up and see two moons. Coupled with the red-tinted atmosphere this place seems very alien,” Andrew said.

“I’d sure as hell hate to have to face surviving on this crazy world. I hope Kimberly figures out where we are so maybe can get back to reality.”

Despite his anxiety, Andrew was bone tired and sleep came fast. After a couple hours, something tickled his head. He instinctively swatted it off. As he raised up, he saw, one of the things he hated the worst — a large, black furry spider. Its four bulbous green eyes and orange fuzzy head gave it a menacing appearance. “Son of a bitch!” He yelled, hitting it with his boot.

“What’s wrong?” Daniel asked, sitting up abruptly.

“A big, ugly spider was on my head.”

“Maybe he was lonely and wanted some company,” Daniel said, chuckling.

“Yeah, well, wait until one of those bastards gets on you and starts chewing.”

Daniel laughed and lay back down “You shouldn’t be so loveable.”

“Fuck you, Forrester.”

 

Private Gunn sat quietly on watch, twenty yards out from the encampment. A strange animal walked up to the stream ahead and started drinking like a dog. Seven feet high, it walked on its muscular hind legs. It had white body fur and a head resembling a wolf with red eyes, clearly a sub-human type creature.

Gunn froze in position. He was sweating profusely and a bead of sweat rolled down his nose. He watched it splash on his weapon, thinking it sounded like a tree crashing when it hit the barrel. He shivered in fear at what would happen if the animal heard it.

After the creature drank, it stood up on its hind legs to sniff the air. Gunn watched it carefully, breathing as silently as he could, hoping it wouldn’t detect him. Glad I’m downwind from it, he thought. It was a mean looking creature. He quietly released the safety on his weapon and sat perfectly still.

The animal had a deep growl like a wolf. The razor sharp teeth filling its ten-inch long mouth, and three-inch claws on each paw made it a formidable predator.

Another meat eater, Gunn thought.

The animal sniffed the air again, looked around, and crouched down to take another drink from the stream. A mantis broke out of the brush and hovered over the sub-human’s back. Before it could react, the mantis tore the flesh with its teeth, ripping large gashes oozing blood. The sub-human, more agile than the mantis, broke free, and climbed on the mantis’s back ripping its hide open. Blood squirted out each time the sub-human ripped the Manta’s flesh open with its razor sharp claws.

The mantis roared, trying to throw the other animal off its back. The sub-human hung on, screaming and growling, tearing the mantis’s neck open with its teeth. The sub-human finally wrestled the mantis to the ground. Both animals growled and tore at each other as they rolled around and tried for a kill. The sub–human was tearing the mantis’s flesh apart. As a last resort, the mantis rolled over on the sub–human, grabbed it by the neck, and crushed its windpipe in its large jaws. The sub-human fell limp, and the mantis ripped its throat out.

The victor roared to announce its kill, and began to drink the blood pouring out of the dead creature. He began to eat. With each bite, he tore out large chunks of flesh and wolfed it down. After every mouthful, the mantis surveyed the surroundings to check for competitors. When it filled itself with meat, it roared and strode off through the brush, bleeding profusely from its wounds. Its mouth and teeth were bloody with bits of flesh stuck between them. Only a piece of hide and a few bones remained.

Gunn waited to make sure the creature wouldn’t come back, and silently slipped back to the encampment to report. He did not dare use his comm.

The Sergeant Major intercepted Gunn. “What are you doing back here? You got a date or something?”

“Hey, you never know. Sergeant Major, didn’t you hear all the commotion?”

“We heard it, but it didn’t seem to be coming our way.”

“Well, I came back to let you know we have another nasty bastard to contend with. It’s clearly a sub-human type, seven-feet high with white fur and a head like a timber wolf. It is a flesh eater. I saw one fight a mantis. It was a vicious, ass-kicking fight. It lasted twenty minutes, but the mantis got lucky and killed the wolf thing. I couldn’t use the radio. I was worried it might hear me. For all I know, there could have been a shit load of those things out there in the dark.”

“Okay, Gunn. Go back out to your post. I’ll inform the others.” He walked over to Tobey. “Major, did you hear Gunn’s report?”

“I did. When we move out at daylight, keep everyone close together. Those things might attack our camp site so make sure our sentries stay alert.”

“Will do, sir.”

Chapter 37

 

The Jungle

 

Except for the sentries, Andrew and other members of the team were sleeping. A long, thorn-laden tentacle slithered along the ground, searching for food for its host plant. The tentacle touched Daniel and he moved his leg. The tentacle, sensing heat from the flesh, slowly wound around the leg. Once it had him securely in its grasp, it began to pull Daniel towards its huge mouth.

Five rows of razor sharp teeth waited for its meal, and streams of drool oozed out of the plant’s main digestive compartment. The plant pulled Daniel towards its mouth. Daniel awoke with a start. He saw the plant and began to kick at the tentacle. The thorns ripped his leg and shoe. Daniel yelled as he thrashed around trying to break free. “Let me go you son of a bitch,” he screamed. He hit the tentacle with his fists. Blood squirted from his hand as he cut them on the thorns. He kicked, squirmed, and tried to break free, but there was no escape.

Andrew grabbed Daniels other leg and tried to pull him free, but to no avail. “Help us!” Andrew screamed. “Kill the son of a bitch!”

“Andrew, get out of the way!” Tobey yelled.

The soldiers shot the plant. The bullets had no impact. They just made holes in the vegetable matter.

The plant dragged Daniel closer. Drool and saliva squirted out of its digestive compartment each time the plant smacked its mouth. They couldn’t use impulse grenades; Daniel was too close to the plant.

Private Martin grabbed his machete and raced over break Daniel free. The others held their fire for fear of hitting the Private. Andrew ran to Daniel again and tried to pull him free. As Martin hacked at the tentacle, a mantis broke into the campsite running at top speed. It grabbed him in its mouth, and bit down hard, large teeth penetrating deep into his chest. He screamed and fell limp. The mantis secured the hold on its prey and ran out of the campsite at top speed growling through its teeth. The others shot at the mantis as it ran back into the jungle. Martin hung from his jaws with his arms and legs flopping up and down as the creature ran.

The ‘flytrap’ pulled Daniel within two feet of its mouth, which continued to open and close in a smacking gesture, gushing streams of saliva out the sides. Daniel screamed and tried to break free. His arms and legs were ripped open and bleeding profusely where the thorns cut him. Try as he might, he could not break loose, and his foot was nearly inside the plant’s mouth.

“This thing is going to eat me. Help me, Andrew!” he cried as he kicked at the tentacle. Andrew let go of Daniel’s leg and ran to get the machete from his pack.

“Hang on, Daniel, I’m coming. Hold your fire!” he screamed. Andrew pulled the machete out and ran over to his friend to attack the tentacle. As he fought, a tentacle wrapped around Andrew’s leg and pulled him to the ground. He hit hard and winced with pain as the thorns cut into his leg.

“Hang in there, Daniel,” he yelled. He lifted the Machete high over his head and with one hard stroke, cut Daniel loose.

As Daniel tried to get up, another tentacle grabbed him. Now the plant had two meals. It wrapped the stubby tentacle around Andrew’s other leg and pulled him towards its mouth.

Andrew fought the pain and kept hacking at the tentacles, but could not get a good angle. His right foot was less than six inches from the plants teeth, which snapped trying to get a bite of the meal it so wanted. The soldiers couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting them.

“Hold on, I’m coming!” Donovan yelled. She picked up her machete and charged into the maze of tentacles chopping anything with a thorn on it. “You son of a bitch, I’m going to cut your ugly fucking head off!” she screamed. She swung her machete like a maniac, screaming and chopping.

Andrew’s foot was one inch from the plant’s mouth when Donovan cut the tentacle off. Another tentacle wrapped around Donovan’s leg, but she quickly hacked it off. “You mother fucker,” she screamed. She chopped the stubby tentacle from Andrew’s other leg and pulled him to his feet. Andrew grabbed Daniel’s leg and she cut him free.

Once the three of them were clear, the Sergeant Major threw an impulse grenade, blowing vegetable matter all over the campsite. The fight was over.

“Thanks, Donovan,” Andrew said, as they limped away. “You saved our asses.”

“I owe you both one,” Daniel said, his voice quivering with fear.

She pulled her helmet off exposing her short red hair and a very pretty face. She smiled and gave Andrew a wink. Her body was still shaking from the adrenalin surge.

Everyone gathered around and helped the three back to the fire.

“Sergeant Major, I’m due to go back on watch in ten minutes. I’ll pour some of your atomic bomb on my cuts and scratches, and relieve Gunn.”

“Thanks, Donovan, stay frisky.”

Andrew helped Daniel sit and grabbed a blanket to cover him. His body quivered, and his face was pale with fright.

“Try to relax, Daniel. I’ll get some medicine for your cuts.”

“Andrew, I’m so scared, I think I’m going to throw up. I thought the bastard was going to eat me.”

“I thought we were both gonna die. Lower your head between your knees and take some deep breaths, it helps ease the nausea.”

The experience caused Andrew’s insides to churn, but he managed to hold it together.

The Sergeant Major walked over to help with their wounds. He ripped Daniel and Andrew’s pants legs open to examine the wounds they had received. “We’re going to have to treat these or they’ll get infected. This jungle heat and humidity are bad news for wounds. You both may need stitches when we get back.”

The Sergeant Major stopped the bleeding and poured his liquid fire anesthetic on them. Andrew almost came off the ground.

“Damn, Sergeant Major. This stuff’s worse than the wound.”

The Sergeant Major laughed. “Burns like hell, but it’ll kill any bug. It’ll stop burning shortly.”

He bandaged Andrew’s wounds, and attended to Daniel. “I think you guys might live.” He took out a cigar and stuffed it in his mouth, unlit as usual. “Here, have some mild pain killers. You may need them later. Want some, Dr. Forrester?”

“No, thanks, Sergeant Major,” Daniel replied. “Andrew, thank you. I thought I was lunch for sure.”

“Well, I’m sure the thing would have enjoyed you, Daniel — you have such nice tender meat. Actually, Donovan saved both our asses. How’s the leg? Hurt much?”

“Hurts like crazy. The potion Sergeant Major poured on me hurt almost as much as the wounds. If I can survive it, I think I’ll get over this. How do you feel?”

“Like shit, but I’ll be better soon.” Andrew touched his wound and flinched. “I think I’ll stay awake. I’d hate to wake up looking out of something’s mouth.”

“For sure. This place is full of nasties. I’m sorry about Martin. What a crappy way to die.”

“I know,” Andrew replied. “He was a good guy and a tough, brave soldier. This shit starts to get to you. I could sure use a good stiff drink.”

“Me, too. Man, a pitcher full of cool Margaritas would sure go down nice right now,” Daniel, replied.

“It’s strange to look up and see two moons. Combined with the red-tinted atmosphere, this place seems even more alien,” Andrew said.

“I’d sure as hell hate to have to face surviving on this crazy world. I hope Kimberly figures out where we are so maybe we can get back to reality.”

Major Tobey signaled the Oriskany, but got no response. He called the Orion. The captain came back immediately.

“Major, this is Captain Starling. What’s your status?”

“Can’t contact the Oriskany — too much electrical interference. I’m surprised I got you. Captain, we’ve been attacked several times. Two of my men were killed.”

“Who did you lose? Over.”

“Sergeant Lopez and Private Martin. Over.”

“I’m very sorry, Major. What happened? Over.”

“The creatures who attacked us look like a cross between a small dinosaur and a praying mantis. They’re about ten feet high and have a mouthful of razor sharp teeth and three-inch claws. They hunt in packs and are very efficient killers. We’ve also had a run-in with a gigantic man eating plant. Both Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Forrester suffered minor wounds, but they’re okay. A mantis killed Private Martin when he tried to save Dr. Forrester. Over.”

“I’m anxious to get you off the surface. When do you think you’ll reach the deposit site? Over.”

“First thing in the morning. I’ll contact you again as soon as we complete the survey. Over.”

“Take precautions and keep safe. By the way, tell Dr. Stevenson Dr. Kimberly has located five of the six pulsars he was looking for, and the wormhole is still inactive. I’ll try to let Knuckles know your status. Over.”

“Thank you, Captain. Tobey out.”

The nocturnal shift filled the night with howls, and roars. Fortunately, nothing seemed to be heading their way. Screams and vicious growls sounded as predators made kills. In the distance, a volcano thundered, shaking the ground and the sky lit up repeatedly from huge lightning strikes.

Andrew lay in his makeshift bedroll listening to the sounds of the nighttime jungle. It gives me the shivers thinking about the things prowling around out there. If someone didn’t stay with the team, they wouldn’t last long.

Donovan was acting as rear guard about ten meters behind the encampment. Mantises had been roaming around her position since her watch began, no doubt looking for something to eat.

She heard a strange rustling noise but couldn’t’ see anything.

About three feet away, a black, fifteen-foot, snake-like creature reared up and looked her in the face. As its head moved back and forth, its tongue darted in-and-out to smell what it hoped would be dinner. Donovan slowly pulled out her combat knife, her eyes locked on the snake.

If I shoot this bastard, I’ll draw the mantises in. This is going to be a one-on-one. Okay shit head let’s boogie.

The snake spat a foul smelling liquid, splattering her goggles. Trying to blind me, huh?

It struck, its four-inch fangs bared and dripping with venom. Donovan instinctively grabbed the snake below its head with her free hand before the fangs hit their target.

The snake wrapped itself around her in preparation for swallowing its prey. The two rolled around in the bush. She gritted her teeth to keep from yelling. It had her knife arm pinned, and she struggled with all her might to keep its fangs off her face.

Each time she exhaled, the constrictor tightened its hold. The snake continued to lunge at her. It was all she could do to keep it from sinking its fangs into her. The constrictor continued to tighten its grip. It got harder and harder to breathe.

You might eat me, but not before, I get a piece of your ass motherfucker. Man, is this bastard strong. Gotta get my knife free, or this things gonna have me for dinner.

It was almost impossible to breathe. She fought to free her knife arm, while simultaneously trying to keep the snake’s fangs away. As the attack went on, Donovan began to tire. She had to do something fast, or it was all over. With great effort, she freed her knife arm and stabbed it. The snake tried its best to bite her and end the fight. They rolled, and the snake lunged repeatedly at her and spit venom in her face as she stabbed it with her knife. Her strength was waning fast. She knew she couldn’t fight it off much longer. With her last ounce of strength, she stabbed it as hard as she could.

I think I’m done for. She felt the blade strike bone, slice through, and the snake fell limp.

“Holy shit,” Donovan muttered. She lay there for a while to catch her breath. Exhausted and pissed off. After a few minutes, she rolled over and pulled the fifteen-foot snake creature from around her body, cut off its huge head and stuck it in her pack. I have a plan for this, she thought, giggling in relief at being alive and near hysteria.

 

Dawn broke and the shooting and yelling started again. The mantises were attacking T Bone’s position. He fired at them with full auto and threw impulse grenades. The mantis creatures charged him, forcing him to retreat to camp.

Everyone jumped up and started shooting at the animals. A hungry pack of twenty or more attacked the camp. The men threw grenades, killing several. Finally, the creatures broke off the attack and headed back into the jungle.

The men sat motionless waiting for the next attack. After what seemed like an eternity, the major signaled all clear and the team gathered around.

“Guys, I don’t think they’re going to be back for a while — besides they’ll be more interested in eating the dead ones. We need to press on to the deposit site. By my calculations, we’re only about thirty meters out. Let’s keep our guard up and move as stealthily and quickly as possible.”

The Sergeant Major took charge. “Okay, people, you heard the man. Saddle up and move out. Keep sharp. Donovan, you and Long take point — ten meters.”

Andrew’s eyes burned from sweat, and his ears hurt from the loud noises of the assault weapons and animal roars. He had been afraid of using earplugs for fear he might not hear some monster sneaking up behind him. He watched Daniel rub his ears, open, and close his mouth to try and clear the pain. He, along with everyone else, looked fatigued and worn. Their clothing was dirty, ripped, torn, and soaked with perspiration. His wounds ached, and it hurt to walk. He took one of the pain pills.

Andrew was almost overjoyed when they broke through the jungle at the deposit site. A small range of jagged hills about five hundred meters high and thirty kilometers long greeted them. Andrew and Daniel looked at each other in disbelief. This had to be the largest deposit of Selenium crystals ever discovered.

They unpacked their instruments and began to take readings. The hills were full of the stuff and better yet, it would be easy to mine once they took care of the animal danger. It was impossible to try to estimate the value of the find. With the guards on full alert, Andrew and Daniel walked up and down the hills and took samples, which proved to be extremely high-grade ore.

Other rare minerals also began to register on their instruments. Andrew was amazed. From the looks of things, this place really is a Mineral Planet. Like Scott said, this must be the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy. If people get greedy there could be some serious wars fought over this place.

When they collected the last samples, they walked up to Tobey. “Looks like we’re all done, Major,” Andrew reported.

Tobey stared up at the sky, obviously worried about what he saw. “Has anyone looked at the sky lately?” The sky had a menacing ugly color. The thunder sounded like cannons as lightning bolts bounced back and forth between the voluminous reddish grey clouds. After a few minutes, a bolt struck the ground and trees with devastating results. The top of a large tree blew off as though someone had planted explosive charges around the trunk.

The sound of the strike was shrill and deafening. Everyone dropped to the ground to avoid the debris. The wood in the trunk of the tree curled in an s-like shape from the extreme current flowing through the plant. Andrew let out a loud yelp when splinters, cast off when the tree trunk exploded embedded in his arm. The pain was excruciating and blood was seeping out of the multiple wounds in his arm.

The intensity of the lightning increased. The electrical storms on Earth didn’t compare to these. The ground literally shook when the giant electrical discharges struck it. The energetic lighting destroyed numerous trees. When it struck them, they blew up sending wooden projectiles through the air at a very high velocity. Andrew hugged the ground each time one exploded to avoid them. He hugged the ground hoping one of the high-speed projectiles would not find him in its path.

Chapter 38

h1<{color:#000;}.

The Cave

 

Andrew closed his eyes. His arm throbbed with pain from the large splinters resting an inch deep in his flesh. Droplets of blood oozed out of the wounds. He pulled the splinters out and winched from the pain. He bit his cheek to stay quiet. As he lay there, he remembered something he discovered during the survey. “Major, there’s a cave about twenty meters from here in the side of the hills. Maybe we can take shelter in there.”

“Team, let’s head for the cave. Lead the way, Doc.”

Andrew pulled himself up. His ears buzzed, and his legs and feet throbbed from the multitude of cuts. Blood spotted through the bandages on his leg. Stumbling like a drunk, he led the team toward sanctuary. He took another pain pill.

 

The entrance to the cave was small. Once through, it opened into a large cavern running back into the bowels of the hill. The end of the large chamber was beyond the range of the flashlights and looked like the ominous blackness of the grave.

“We’ll camp in here until the storm lets up,” Tobey ordered. “If Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Forrester have the samples they need; I recommend we head back to the Oriskany at first light. It’s almost dark. I don’t want to spend another night in this jungle.”

“We have what we need,” Andrew replied, grimacing as he poured a disinfectant on his wounds. I’m glad to be inside and not having to worry about a lightning strike or some predator. He took another pain pill.

“Having a problem there, Andrew?” Daniel joked.

“Hey, bud, you’re next.”

“I know. I’m looking forward to it. I always did like pain. Can I have one of those pills?” Daniel asked. “That fly trap ripped my feet up, and I’m having a hard time walking. Guess I should have taken the pills when the Sergeant Major offered them.”

“Here, have a few. They help believe me. We’re both going to need them when we head back in the morning.”

“Morning won’t be too soon for me. Sure wish Knuckles could drop over and pick us up. He’d never find a place to land, though. Too bad.” Daniel ran his hand through his dirty hair. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this filthy and cut up. Let’s get some coffee going.”

Corporal Rodriquez called over to the Sergeant Major. “I need to take a dump.”

“Okay, but don’t go far. We don’t know what’s in this cave.”

“Don’t worry about it, Sergeant Major. I’m sure as hell not going sightseeing.”

“Better take someone with you. Anyone else need to go?”

“I do,” T Bone replied.

“Don’t screw around. Get back here quick.”

 

Rodriguez and T Bone headed back into the cave, shining their rifle-mounted lights around; hoping they wouldn’t see anything.

“Man, taking a dump’s never been this spooky,” Rodriquez said.

“Let’s hurry and find a spot. I don’t like this dark ass cave.”

Something very hungry watched as they approached its hole. Its big jaws smacked together and the creature drooled as it anticipated the meals coming straight to its lair.

When they got close to its lair, the thing jumped out, knocked T Bone to the ground, and grabbed Rodriquez forcing the weapon out of his hands. He screamed from the sickening sight of the thing holding him close to its fangs.

T Bone tried to shoot the animal’s legs. His light was broken and the ambient lighting so poor he couldn’t get a clean shot. The creature moved around fast as he tried to bite Rodriquez. Everyone heard the cries, and ran towards the sound.

The monster looked like a cross between a giant spider and a scorpion. Ten feet in length, with six, black, furry legs, an hourglass green body covered with yellow prickly fur, and a big stinger on the end of its six-foot long, shiny black segmented tail. Four huge orange eyes and two eight-inch fangs decorated its head. Four grabber arms, terminating in pincher-like razor sharp claws protruded from the sides of its mouth. They held Rodriguez in preparation for a final bite to finish him off.

Rodriquez screamed for help at the top of his lungs. Cursing and thrashing around he tried to avoid the fangs of this devil. He stabbed at the creature with his knife, trying to cut an arm off and escape. The hungry monster was not about to let him go. It would eat him, bones, and all.

The soldiers were horrified at what they saw. Rodriquez was in the things grasp, fighting to avoid its fangs, yelling profanities.

The creature was very agile and the lighting dim, making it next to impossible to get a clean shot off and avoid hitting Rodriquez.

Rodriquez cried out in agony as the scorpion-thing sank its giant fangs into his body. It injected its toxic venom, and stung him with the big stinger on the end of its tail. Rodriquez let out one final, painful scream, and fell limp.

The animal, having secured its meal, crawled into its hole, carrying Rodriquez with him. The soldiers ran up and shot down into its lair. Their rounds were having no effect. The creature’s borrow was deep, with many twists and turns.

The Sergeant Major headed for the edge of the hole, sat down and prepared to drop down and try to get Rodriquez. Tobey grabbed him before he could jump.

“Sergeant Major, it’s too late. We can’t help Rod, and I don’t want to lose you, too. Come on. We have to get the team back to the front of the cave.”

“Yes, sir, but I need to try to kill the bastard.” The Sergeant Major threw several impulse grenades into the hole. The sides of the creature’s den caved in, and it would take a lot of effort for it to dig out. No matter, with such a large meal, there would be no need for it to leave its liar to hunt anytime soon.

“Maybe we couldn’t help Rod, but I hope we killed the son of a bitch,” the Sergeant Major said. “Shit! I hate to lose anyone, especially to a fucking bug. I hope I killed your lousy ass!” he yelled down the hole.

Reluctantly, the team left the bug hole and returned to the mouth of the cave to mourn their fallen comrade, and wait out the storm.

So much death and mayhem left Andrew with a sense of shock. He never dreamed his project would be so dangerous and cost so many fine people their lives. It saddened him to think about the losses. Strangely, as with Lieutenant Jones, he felt responsible and knew these deaths would haunt him for a long time.

How many more of us have to die before we can get off this horrid world? If we get off. What if we have to stay here? We couldn’t possibly survive. Without the wormhole there is no way back; we’re all gonna die.

 

Chapter 39

 

STL

Mission Control Center

 

The Mission Control team faced a mystifying challenge. Orion and her crew were lost in space — marooned somewhere within the 600,000 trillion miles of the Milky Way. The flight history registry had been deleted, leaving no obvious way to trace Orion’s flight path or end-point coordinates. It seemed like a problem with no solution. The implications spelled disaster for the team and the Orion.

Teri sat at her console, frustrated and desperate to find an answer. She and sleep had not been close companions since the start of the catastrophe.

Marc walked over. “Teri, you look worn out. We’re all extremely concerned about the guys, but we’ll make errors if we get too tired. Please, get some rest. I’m worried about you.”

“I’m not going to quit until I know what’s going on! We’ve run diagnostics on all subsystems, conducted every virus and malware analysis routine in existence — signature matching, heuristic and polymorphic analysis, and still no joy. I know it’s there, but we can’t find it. I’m not going to quit until we solve this.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard. Have you talked to Kala?”

“Not for a while. She’s somewhere in cyberspace.”

Mark patted her on the shoulder and returned to his console.

Teri typed in code K234 to see if Kala had discovered anything. Kala appeared immediately.

“Yes, Teri?”

“Have you found any clues about the problems we’re having?”

“I’ve analyzed the system and concluded someone downloaded a unique, intelligent virus. It’s like a Chameleon. We haven’t been able to isolate it, because it hides, decomposes, or changes its form when we initiate any detection process. I’ve worked in the background, so I wouldn’t interfere with your testing. I think it’s time I did a full-scale investigation. If you concur, I’ll take control.”

“Please do, I’m at my wits end. We need help. We don’t know where our people are, if they’re in trouble, hurt, or dead. I can’t take much more of this stress.” Teri relaxed a bit. If anyone can crack this mystery, it’s Kala.

“I’ll get right on it. This is not going to be easy. However, don’t worry; we’ll bring our guys back home. No virus is going to outsmart me.”

 

Kala entered the strange and exotic world of cyberspace — her domain. It was a gigantic network of interconnected quantum operations, circuits performing trillions of mathematical and logical instructions per nanosecond; exchanging information. Data streams, characterized by quantum packets, propagated at the speed of light through a multitude of fiber optics highways, orchestrating operations throughout the system. To the casual observer, a confusing matrix of light-based interchanges and transfers traveling in all directions, like a star burst, and millions of lights of different colors blinking on and off in random succession — beyond human comprehension. To Kala it was home: no more confusing to her than to a pedestrian on a busy city street. The virus detected the scanners, decomposed, and hid — very effectively.

Andrew said consider something never done before. It’s obvious conventional methodologies aren’t going to work. I think I have an idea. If I use a combination of convolution and correlation analysis on the data byte patterns, I might find a clue. We’ll have to examine trillions of bytes of data, but I don’t think there’s any other way. There has to be a kernel. I’d bet there’s something in its code to furnish us with a clue.

She redirected the scanners, and together they started a long, tedious, detailed search. As the analysis progressed, at billions of bytes per second, Kala noticed some of the datum had a strange token attached. From all outwards appearances, it appeared inconsequential. I think I need to take a closer look. When she examined the code of one token, it seemed to allow for linkage with other datum. Upon detailed analysis, she discovered it had a key to enable structural form changes.

Quite interesting, she thought. This may be the clue I’ve been looking for. If the tokens are independent variables, they’ll most likely be uncorrelated. I can easily check such a hypothesis.

She performed independent variable tests on the tokens. To her delight, she discovered they were not completely independent. Based on her observation, she initiated a stochastic correlation analyses on bytes with similar token structures — a very tedious task. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity in cyberspace time, the analysis began to yield a positive correlation. The token analysis made it clear the virus had decomposed and distributed its components throughout the data stream — retaining the ability to recompose, at will, using the cleverly designed tokens.

Kala knew the virus would require a kernel to recompose itself. The kernel, by necessity, will have a very simplistic form, or the scanners would have identified it. If queried, it will probably respond with some simple task function. She examined tens of thousands of data patterns before she finally detected a simple LED blinking utility code. It was not exactly what one would expect for this class of subroutine. It had too many lines of code and they were a bit complex. It’s token and key were somewhat different from the others. How interestingly strange. She thought. Well, what do you know, I think I’ve found you —you’re really are smart.

Kala initiated a routine to isolate the kernel before it could invoke a random jump to another hiding place. She transferred it to a malware cloud chamber, a cyberspace environment designed to observe code processes without the suspicious code being able to escape or do harm. She captured other bytes, with similar tokens, and transferred them into the chamber. Once she collected a sufficient data set, Kala unraveled the encryption codes and activated the kernel. It immediately began the reconstruction process. It didn’t take her long to assess its programming, capture the remaining tokens, and understand the viruses’ strategy, modus operandi, and purpose. She disabled the virus, activated her hologram, and stood next to Teri’s console.

Teri smiled at her. “I hope you have some good news.”

“I’ve found the virus and isolated it. I suggest you download the code from the storm chamber and keep it for study. You won’t have any further problems. I’ll give you a complete report on my analysis techniques and findings. It’s without doubt, the most intelligent and deceptive attack engine I’ve ever seen.”

“Fantastic. I’m so relieved. Maybe we now have a shot at finding the crew.” She took several deep breaths to calm down — to think clearly. “I can’t wait to read your analysis. Really good work, girl. Thank you so very much.”

“Teri, Andrew’s my bro. I’d do anything to help him. I will say this; the creator of that virus code was brilliant.”

Lars walked up. “Kala found the virus and isolated it so it can do no further harm,” Teri exclaimed loudly.

“Now maybe we can try to reboot the wormhole,” he said, as he walked away.

Teri’s frustration transformed into a bulldog determination to stop this ruthless killer before he interfered any further. “Kala, do you think you could nose around and figure out who did this? I can’t find any passwords or links to tell us who got in. I suspect whoever created the virus is behind all of the sabotage.”

“I’ll see what I can find. By the way, I have evidence there’s another virus hiding in the code, and I’m going to sniff it out”

“I hope it’s not like the other one you neutralized,” Teri said.

“It’s something different. Now that I’ve unraveled the dynamic and understand its stratagem, it’ll be easy to find and quarantine. I’ll be in touch.”

“Kala, we also have to figure out the end-point coordinates of the wormhole. The virus must have erased the flight history registry. Is there any way to reconstruct it?”

“I’m working on it, and there may be a way to put it back together. I’ll let you know.”

Kala reentered cyberspace to finish her work. I guess I showed the virus who the momma duck is. She chuckled to herself.

 

Teri’s stomach churned with anticipation and could feel herself tremble as she walked over to the flight director console to join Marc and Tarnak. She couldn’t wait to tell him the news. “Marc, we found the problem virus and isolated it. Maybe we can boot the system up now.”

“Fantastic,” he said. His face lit up. “Good work! What the heck was it?”

“A unique virus capable of decomposing itself and hiding in the data streams. When certain system conditions occurred, it recomposed and attacked. The thing is also polymorphic, so it can change its structure by a key in the token after it strikes. It totally fooled the scanners. It constantly decomposes, changes form, and sometimes even its behavior. It was the work of a software genius. We had to create a new type of virus analysis to find it. The good news is we’ve disabled it, so it can’t do any more harm. A report’s being generated to describe it and the analysis strategy in detail.”

“You don’t know how relieved I am. I must say, I’m damn sick of this mole. I can’t wait until we catch the person responsible. I’d love to shoot him right between the eyes. It would serve him right.” The tone of his voice and clenched jaws emphasized his anger and frustration.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but at least we have a shot at it thanks to you, Kala and Tarnak. What do you say we try to reboot?”

“Let’s give it a try. I can’t wait to find the guys. I’m so worried.”

“Me, too,” Marc said. “Heaven only knows where they are. I hope Captain Starling had the sense to stay put. If not, we don’t have a snowballs chance in hell of finding them.”

“I’d be surprised if they moved away from their egress point,” Tarnak replied. “The captains too experienced to do such a foolish thing.”

“I hope so. By the way, Bill Mitchel called earlier, and he’s a bundle of nerves. D.C. is in an uproar. The fact that this was another case of sabotage is not going down easy in Washington. One senator is already calling for an investigation of our security procedures.”

“I know D.C., Marc,” Teri said. “They’re famous for finding fault and finger pointing. I guarantee the guys in Washington will be on our ass to resolve this issue fast.”

“We’ll worry about them later. What do you say we get the wormhole rebooted? Where in the world do we start? Did you get any information we can use to try and reposition it?”

“It’s sketchy at best,” Tarnak explained. “Despite the fact the virus jumbled the code and deleted the files, Kala reverse engineered its scrambling algorithm and partially restored the registry. We have a data point we can start with. Hopefully, we’ll be close enough they can detect the wormhole if they look for it.”

“It’s all we have, so by definition it has to be good enough,” Marc said. “Okay, guys, let’s turn this thing on. Attention team, we think we’ve rectified the system shutdown issue. We’re going to try to reboot. Let’s focus and get started.”

Everyone in the MCC cheered loudly and shook each other’s hand. Marc gave them a few minutes and started the process. “Tarnak, enter the end-point coordinates.”

“Roger, Marc. Coordinates entered and accepted. Navigation is ready.”

“Very well. Computer, Initiate the wormhole,” Marc commanded.

 

“WORKING. WORMHOLE SYNTHESIS INITIATED. ACCESSING TIME AND SPATIAL COORDINATES FOR THE BRIDGE. STARTUP SEQUENCE AND DESIGN SIMULATION AND VALIDATION IS COMPLETE. SYSTEM FIELD AND MATTER SYNTHESIZERS ARE ON-LINE AND DATA TRANSFER IN PROCESS. ALL SYSTEMS GO.”

 

They were on the edge of their seats as they monitored the system metrics during the synthesis of the bridge. Everyone watched the star map. Space-time twisted and bent. To everyone’s delight, the configuration they expected appeared on the star map. Like a breath of fresh air, the computer announced what they all wanted to hear:

 

“THE EINSTEIN-ROSEN BRIDGE IS IN PLACE. END-POINT COORDINATES VERIFIED. THE WORMHOLE IS STABLE.”

 

Mission Control erupted with loud cheers as people shook hands, jumped up and down, and congratulated their success. After days of doom and gloom, a glimmer of hope permeated the MCC. It was a good feeling.

“Thank God, for small favors,” Teri said. Tarnak smiled and nodded.

Orion, this is MCC please come in,” Marc said. He waited for a response, but there was none. “Orion, this is the MCC. Please respond.” Still no answer. After a few minutes, he tried again. “Orion, this is the MCC. Please respond!”

Marc took off his glasses and threw them on the flight director console. He leaned back in this chair and rubbed his face with his hands.

What if we don’t find them? At least we’re back on-line and have eliminated the virus. I pray they didn’t reposition the ship. I guess all we can do is sit here and sweat. I don’t dare move the wormhole. What if our data point is wrong? I hope Kala’s analysis is correct. Well, it’s all we have to start with, so it has to be good enough.

Marc reviewed the metric display, hoping for stability and thankful to see it. He took a deep breath, and took a sip of his coffee. He was fatigued from stress, a lack of sleep, and too much caffeine. A slight pain shot through his chest. Something he hadn’t experienced since before they inserted the stent in his aorta five years earlier. He rubbed his chest, fearful that he might be having another heart attack.

I’ll let the team down if I have a heart attack in the middle of this mess. Have to get control of my nerves.

 

Starship Orion

In orbit above MP-1

 

Somewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy, Scott Kimberly was working in the Orion astronomical lab when he inadvertently detected the wormhole with one of his sensor scans. Excitedly, he paged the bridge. “Captain, this is Kimberly. You won’t believe it but I’ve detected the wormhole.”

“Did you lock in the coordinates?”

“Absolutely. I’ve entered them in the system, and it should be showing up on the star map.”

“I see it. Good work, Scott. How do you stand on the pulsar analysis?”

“We’ve got it nailed. We located all six pulsars and triangulated our position relative to Earth. Commander Thompson and I have registered our position in the bridge star maps.”

“I see it. What a relief.”

“Captain, I’ll bet they’re trying to communicate with us.”

“I’m sure they are. We need to contact MCC, but I can’t move the ship until our away team gets back. If we leave our parking spot, they could get confused if they try to communicate with us and we don’t answer. We don’t need any more problems. I’m sure they won’t move the wormhole. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Yes, but let me get back to you.”

Scott integrated the coordinates. “Computer, show me the geometrical configuration of the planets of this solar system relative to each other, the ship, and the wormhole. Please use the holographic display in high definition format. Also, run an orbital analysis, surface density, topographical analysis of the third planet and give me detailed data on the surface profile.”

 

“WORKING, DOCTOR. MODEL IS COMPLETE.”

 

Scott reviewed the data and concluded if the comm system’s power was sufficient, it might be possible to bounce a signal off the third planet and target the wormhole central axis. The geometry and time window would be very critical. The planet’s surface was a barren, smooth piece of rock, and the geometry looked good; however, the window of opportunity had a millisecond timeframe.

“Computer, calculate the signal power, transmission angle and time window to use planet number three as a signal relay station from the Orion to the wormhole central axis.”

 

“CALCULATIONS COMPLETE. ANALYSIS INDICATES FULL Z BAND POWER USING A TDM CODE WILL BE REQUIRED. AZIMUTH AND DECLINATION ANGLES SHOWN ARE VALID FOR 32.256 MILLISECONDS. TRANSMIT TIME MUST INITIATE IN 4 MINUTES, 22.366 SECONDS, BASED ON PLANETARY SURFACE TOPOGRAPHY, ROTATION VELOCITY AND ORBITAL RATE.”

 

“Captain, this is Kimberly. I think we can use the outer planet as a relay station.”

“What do you mean, Scott?”

“If we have enough power, and use the right transmit angle, we might be able to bounce a signal off the third planet and hit the central axis of the wormhole. The transmit window will be very short. The MCC won’t be able to communicate with us, but if we can give them our position, they can reposition the wormhole and we could be back in business.”

“It’s worth a try. Please enter the initial conditions and exact spatial coordinates of our location.”

“Keep the message short, Captain. We won’t have the angle for long. The data and spatial coordinates for the transmission and our location should be on your display now.”

“We have the data locked into the communications computer. Good work.”

The computer announced:

 

“AZIMUTH AND DECLINATION ANGLES LOCKED-IN AND VERIFIED. Z BAND TRANSMITTER ON FULL POWER. TDM CODE STABLE. DATA TRANSMISSION STARTS IN 3.284 SECONDS.”

 

The captain crossed his fingers as the communications computer transmitted the vital message. All we can for now is wait and see.

 

“DATA TRANSMISSION SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED.”

 

Mission Control Center

 

The Mission Control Communications Officer intercepted the message and directed it to Marc who was in his office bathroom.

This whole thing has disaster written all over it. There will be congressional hearings to say the least. No one has ever lost a starship in space. What a mess. Well, our priority is to get our people home.

He looked at himself in the mirror. The lack of sleep and stress were showing. He hadn’t shaved in three days, and his clothes were disheveled and dirty. Man I look grubby. I feel worse.

He splashed water on his face and combed his hair. Marc still hadn’t been able to reconcile with his wife and convince her to return home, and it preyed on his mind. After a few minutes, he left his rest room and heard the emergency message warning light beeping. When he read it, he laughed, clapped his hands, and contacted the MCC.

“Teri, excellent news! The Orion has contacted us. I’ll be down there in a moment. We need status immediately.”

“I’m on it!” She jumped up and down, giggling with delight. She entered code K234 and Kala appeared. “What’s up, Teri?”

“We’ve found them.”

“Thank, God,” Kala said, “I’m so happy.”

 

The elevator ride down to the MCC seemed to take forever. Marc almost busted through the door when it stopped at the MCC level.

“Are we ready to redirect the wormhole?” he asked, as he ran into the control room.

Teri land Tarnak shared a glance of agreement. “We’ve got the coordinates. We also have the virus quarantined, and it will not cause any more damage. We’ve fixed the navigation subsystem code and put safeguards in place to make sure this guy never strikes again.”

“Excellent,” Marc replied. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”

“Join the club,” Teri replied. “Kala’s the one to thank. She found the virus.”

“Kala you’re absolutely amazing. I’m thrilled every time I think about you being a part of our team,” Mark said.

“You’re welcome. I have to go. I have more work to do.”

“Teri, do we have any clue who did this?”

“Not yet, but we’re working on it. Kala thinks there’s another virus hiding in the data stream. Efforts are underway to locate and neutralize it.”

“Will it cause the same problem we had?”

“No, it’s something else. We’re not quite sure of its purpose.”

“Let me know the second you have an answer. I hope you’re feeling better.” Mark smiled.

“I have so many butterflies in my stomach I’m afraid they’ll fly out when I talk. I feel like King Kong hopped off my back.”

Marc winked at her, and took his position at the flight director console. “Tarnak, enter the new coordinates.”

“Coordinates submitted,” Tarnak replied. “We should know very soon.”

Chapter 40

 

Mission Control Center

 

An eerie quiet fell over the MCC as they waited for the system to respond. The bridge began to move at a slow and agonizing pace, and finally stabilized at the new end-point location. Teri’s heart raced with excitement as she heard the computer announcement:

 

“SYSTEM IS STABLE. THE NEW END-POINT BRIDGE COORDINATES VALIDATED.”

 

Orion, this is MCC. Please come in,” Marc said, biting his lip.

The captain appeared on the main display. “MCC, it’s great to see you. For a while there, I thought we might never see Earth again. We’ve had a lot going on.”

Everyone in the MCC jumped from their seats and danced around their positions, cheering and applauding.

“Captain, we’re delighted to see you. Thank goodness, you knew to stay put. We’re anxious to hear a status report and your return plan.”

“What in the world happened?” Starling asked.

“The system was hit with a very deadly virus. We finally neutralized it.”

“Well, it’s been exciting. Good to know things are back under control. We should be ready to return within twelve hours.”

“Why so long?” Marc asked.

“When the system malfunctioned, we found ourselves in an uncharted, alien solar system. While we were trying to figure out where we were, on a whim, Dr. Stevenson decided to do a survey of the fifth planet and made an amazing discovery.”

“What is it?” Marc asked.

“A Selenium crystal deposit in a mountain range five hundred meters tall and over three hundred kilometers long. The ore is extremely high grade.”

“Do you have a ground party validating the find?”

“We do. Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Forrester are on the surface, and they’ve validated the site. They’ve also taken ore samples and bringing them back. Unfortunately, the planets overrun with vicious predatory animals. I’m sad to report we lost three of our special ops soldiers.”

“I’m so sorry,” Marc said quietly. “I hope everyone else is all right. When will the away party get back?”

“It’s breaking daylight, so they should be back at the shuttle within six hours. It’s too dangerous to travel in the jungle at night. The nocturnal group is as ferocious as the day shift.”

“Keep us informed, and let us know the minute everyone’s back aboard.”

“Will do, MCC.”

“By the way, I’m curious to know how you figured out where you were.”

The captain smiled. “Scott Kimberly used the cosmic WNS system.”

“What?”

“He located six pulsars whose positions are known relative to Earth and simply triangulated their position to pinpoint ours.”

“Clever,” Marc said. “Kala said he would figure it out. What’s your status?”

“All ship systems are fully operational. We’ll be leaving orbit as soon as the away party returns.”

“Very well, we’ll be standing by to assist. Thank God, we finally have the virus situation under control.”

“What a relief. We’ll switch in views of the planet, and send back data, if you like,” the captain offered.

“Love to see it,” Marc replied.

Teri walked over to Marc’s position to view the planetary and solar system pictures they were receiving through the wormhole. Marc switched to an auxiliary screen so everyone could share the data.

“It seems strange observing a world with two moons,” Teri said. “Look at the volcanic eruptions and electrical storms. I hope our away team gets back to the ship safely.”

“Me, too. I certainly hope we don’t lose anyone else. At least we know where they are,” Marc said, as he arose from his chair. “I’m going to my office to call Bill Mitchel. One senator is demanding a congressional investigation of our security measures. Teri, do you have anything to discuss with Bill?”

“Tell him I’ll send the virus report in a few minutes, and we’re purging another virus from the system. Please let him know we’re trying to uncover the saboteur’s identity.”

“I hope this virus is not like the last one you found.”

“It’s something very different.”

“Keep me informed.”

“I will,” she said as she stared at the main screen. Look at those terrible storms. I’m so happy to know Andrew’s still alive. Better let Kala know. She typed in code K234 and Kala appeared.

“What’s up, Teri?”

“I have good news. The wormhole’s up and we’ve been in communication with the Orion. You can get all the details from the communications files. Anyway, Andrew’s all right. Kimberly used pulsars to figure out their location just as you said he might.”

“I thought he’d figure it out,” Kala replied. “When are they coming back?”

“The captain said it would be about twelve hours. Andrew and some others are on the surface of a planet validating a phenomenal mineral find. It is one scary place. You can view it on the aux screen.”

“Please keep me in the communication loop. I’ll call Carle Anne and let her know the good news. She’s been an emotional mess since I told her about this. She’ll be so relieved. Think I’ll tap into the picture stream. It should be interesting.”

“Ask Carle if she can call me at my quarters this evening. I’d like to talk to her. Do you have any news on the second virus?”

“Yes, but my diagnostics are still in process. We still have a bunch of problems to resolve. We’re not out of the woods yet. I’ll keep you informed.” She switched the link off and reentered cyberspace.

Chapter 41

 

MP-1

The Jungle

 

Major Tobey tried to reach the Orion. The static from a huge electrical storm interfered. Damn, I hope I can reach Knuckles, he thought. “Knuckles, this is Tobey. Come in, over.”

“Hey, Major, I’m relieved to hear from you. I assume you are on the way back. Over.”

“We’ve been held up by an electrical storm. We’ve lost three men. We took shelter in a cave and some spider-like creature killed Rodriquez. We tried to kill it, but I think it got away, over.”

“I’m sorry about your men. Is everyone else all right? Over.”

“For now, over.”

“What’s your ETA? Over.”

“I suspect we’re about six hours out. It’s a slow process trying to get through this jungle, and we expect more trouble from the predators along the way. The animal and plant life are unbelievably hostile and hungry. We’ll keep you informed. Tobey out.”

The major signaled the men together. “It looks like the storm is about over, so we need to move out and get to the shuttle before nightfall. An attack is highly probable. Sergeant Major, make sure the men stay alert and have impulse grenades loaded.”

“You heard the man. Off your ass and on your feet. Move out and stay frisky.”

Leaving the cave and tromping back through the jungle put everyone’s nerves on edge. Of course, it was preferable to a close encounter with another spider thing. The cave was obviously not a place either the mantises or sub-humans would go. The bones littering the floor gave testimony the cave was the spider creature’s domain. He was without doubt the dominant predator inside.

The point guards, Gunn and Donovan, exited first and the rest of the team followed. The screams and growls of predators hunting for food reverberated through the hot, humid morning air. The death cries of creatures, lower in the food chain, caused a cold shiver to run up and down Andrew’s spine. It reinforced his perception of how hostile this planet was, and how much he hoped they could get back to the shuttle alive and get off this crazy world.

The weather turned even more humid, and the temperature strained to stay below 34 Celsius. Volcanic eruptions fouled the air and assaulted Andrew’s nose and lungs. His clothes were soaked with perspiration and he could feel the sweat dribbling down his sides. The thorns had opened new wounds and they stung with sweat and dirt.

“Major, we’re in deep shit,” the Sergeant Major said. “The magnetic variation is starting to cause problems. We’re lost and don’t have any landmarks to use for navigation.”

“Dr. Stevenson, do you have any suggestions?”

Everything Andrew thought of required instruments. “Any ideas, Daniel? If we get lost out here, we’re in big trouble.”

“Let’s call the Oriskany and see if Knuckles is aware of the variations. Maybe he can help.”

Major Tobey activated his headset. “Oriskany, this is Tobey please come in, over.”

“This is Oriskany. What’s up? ”

“Knuckles, we’re experiencing considerable magnetic deviations. The compass is almost useless. Can you help us?”

“I’ve been monitoring the magnetic flux variation. Yes, I can help. Captain Starling directed me to plant a miniature direction-finding beacon in Andrew’s pack. I’ve been tracking you all the time you’ve been on the ground. I know exactly where you are and where you’ve been.”

“It’s nice to have devious friends. What do we need to do?”

“I’ve had the computer analyze the magnetic deviation. Take the total variation around the heading course of two hundred degrees and cut it by plus twenty and minus thirty degrees and stay in the middle of the calculated heading. If I see you deviating too far, I’ll contact you with corrections. Whatever you do, keep the channel open and do not lose Andrew’s backpack.”

“You can count on it. We’re moving out again. By the way, do you know if we’re going to get hit by another electrical storm before we get to the ship? ”

“I’ve contacted Orion and they informed me the storms are moving off to the East, so you should be okay.”

“It’s about time we got a break. See you soon. Tobey out.”

The Sergeant Major studded the surroundings and sensed something was wrong. They had traveled a long distance and not heard nor seen any of the predators. This reminded him of an expedition to another planet, Alba 323, where they suffered repeated attacks in dense jungle areas. It was always quiet before all hell broke loose.

He whispered in his headset mike. “Gunn, you and Donovan stay feisty. It’s too quiet … something’s up.”

“What, Sergeant Major?” Donovan asked, as she clicked her weapon off safety.

“I don’t know, damn it. Just stay alert!”

The first sub-human jumped Private Gunn from a small tree. The creature landed on Gunn’s back, ripping his neck with its fangs. Gunn shot wildly and screamed. The creature was not about to let go short of death.

By the time Donovan arrived at Shawn’s location, three of the creatures fed on the bloody carcass of what was once Shawn Gunn.

You sons of bitches. Donovan raised her weapon and fired. Two of the creatures screamed and fell dead. The other ran off through the jungle, yelping. There was no helping Gunn. There wasn’t even enough left of him to put in a body bag. Donovan quietly eased back to the main group to report. As she approached, she saw a sub-human in a tree, ready to jump on Major Tobey. She shot the animal as it jumped. It fell dead at the major’s feet.

When the creature hit the ground, the major jumped back. “Thanks, Donovan. What’s up?” he asked, trying hard to maintain a calm demeanor as he gazed at the beast who almost killed him.”

“Major, they killed Shawn Gunn and were eating him. I shot two, but the third one got away. You have to watch the trees. They like to use them to ambush your ass. These fuckers are smart, Major. They’re not acting on instinct alone. Do you want me to go back on point?”

“No, stay with the group.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sergeant Major, make sure everyone stays close and alert. These mother humpers are gettin’ too bold.”

Andrew heard the noise of sub-humans stalking them. Growling and howling like a pack of coyotes circling for the kill. The team shot only enough to keep them at bay. Their ammo was running low.

“You know, Daniel, there must be thirty or forty of those things out there,” Andrew said, as they continued to hack their way through the hot steamy jungle. Sweat poured off his forehead; blurred his vision. He could feel the sting of new scratches as the sweat oozed into the wounds.

“I’ll bet they’re planning a big feast, with us as the main course,” Daniel remarked. “Watch out for the limb, Andrew!”

Andrew ducked as a thorn-laden limb snapped almost hitting him in the head. “Thanks, man. It would have cut my friggin’ head open.”

A huge volcano exploded, sending great quantities of ash and lava high into the atmosphere. The seismic shock wave shook the planet with so much force it knocked everyone to the ground. The violent quake moved everything. Trees swung wildly and the terrain rolled like sea waves.

Wow, Andrew thought. I’ve never seen Kirchhoff waves before … it’s fascinating. The seismic waves bounced his body up and down as they rolled past. He felt like a bug stranded on a choppy pond, hanging on a leaf to survive.

Trees crashed and the ground split wide open. Plants and a few unlucky animals fell into the chasm. The shaking worsened. The animals in the jungle growled and screamed, terrified by the huge quake.

I hope the ground doesn’t open up and swallow me. Andrew tried, but he couldn’t get up, so he lay there, praying the quake would stop. Finally, after five agonizing minutes, the main quake subsided. No one moved, fearful, waiting for an aftershock. When it hit, it threw the team around like rag dolls, knocked trees down, and split the ground open in another location close to them.

Living in California, as a kid, Andrew had experienced earthquakes. But never like this one. Andrew waited for another shock, but the ground stayed still. Thank God, it’s over. “Daniel, you okay?”

“I guess so. I thought I had bought the farm. I don’t know about you, but I was scared shitless. Did you catch those Kirchhoff waves?”

Andrew chuckled at Daniel’s reply. The lingering fears slowly receded allowing him to relax a bit. Only a scientist would comment on a phenomena rather than his fear of it. “Yep, pretty cool stuff,” Andrew replied. And it scared the shit out of me too.

“Man, there aren’t many people who have ever seen a Kirchhoff,” Daniel said with exuberance. “Cool stuff, but I never want to see one again.”

“I don’t either.”

Andrew got to his feet and looked around. The quake had decimated the landscape. Trees and plants were uprooted, and animals lay dead everywhere. The polluted air from the ash the volcano spewed into the atmosphere made it difficult to breathe, and intensified the heat and humidity. His clothes were wringing wet, and perspiration ran down his forehead like tiny creek streams. Tired of burning eyes, he wrapped a cloth around his head to block the sweat. His whole body hurt and the cuts and scratches — the thorns had inflicted on him — burned like fire. He felt like complaining but kept his mouth shut.

“Sergeant Major, check on the men,” Tobey said.

“Roger, sir.”

“Are you injured?” he asked Andrew and Daniel.

“No, just shook up,” Andrew replied.

The Sergeant Major checked his people and all of them seemed in good shape. “Major, looks like everyone got through it. No casualties.”

“Excellent. Get everyone together and let’s prepare to move out.”

“You heard the man. Check your weapons and let’s go. Everyone stay close.”

They headed off through the jungle, exhausted, hungry, and anxious to get back to the shuttle. A half-hour passed and it grew very quiet again.

This must be the way it is when a predator’s on the hunt and closing on its kill, Andrew thought.

The team moved — their senses focused to detect any sign of a predator. They stopped in a small clearing to take a reading on the compass and check their ammo reserves.

“If the attacks continue, it’s gonna come down to hand-to-hand combat. Everyone’s about out of ammo,” Andrew said.

“I sure hope not. I don’t think I could handle one of those things,” Daniel replied

“Team, check your combat knives. We may need them,” the Sergeant Major yelled.

The sub-humans had set a trap, and rushed them from two sides. One knocked Donovan to the ground before she could get her rifle in position. She fought it with her knife. The sub-human growled and snarled, saliva running out of its mouth, its red eyes filled with blood lust. It ripped at her with its claws, and tried repeatedly to sink its teeth into her.

Donovan yelled and cussed as they fought. She used her forearm to keep the creature’s fangs from ripping her face, and tried to stab it.

The creature ripped Donovan’s forearm open. She screamed with pain as blood poured from the six-inch tear. The Sergeant Major ran over and jumped onto the animal’s back, screaming profanities as he stabbed it repeatedly. He sank his combat knife into the creature’s neck. It growled, let out a scream, and dropped dead.

“Guess you won’t fuck with us again.” The Sergeant Major wiped his brow and helped Donovan up.

“Thanks, Sergeant Major. Where’s my weapon?” Donovan ignored the large gash and blood running down her arm. She grabbed her assault rifle and started shooting again. She was not about to let a little pain or blood shut her down. Besides, in spec ops, they say if you’re in pain, you know you’re still alive.

“Come and get me, you bastards. Momma bear’s going to kick your ass,” she yelled, going full auto.

At least ten of the predators lay on the ground bleeding. The rest regrouped for a final two-pronged assault. The ammo was all but gone. Andrew knew they wouldn’t survive another full-scale attack.

Looks like we’ve had the meat, he thought. We’re all gonna die.

“Hey, Andrew, it’s time to break out the steak sauce, I think they’re coming again,” Daniel yelled.

The sub-humans screamed and growled. Their huge red eyes blazed with blood lust, and their mouths hung open displaying long, sharp teeth as they charged for the final kill.

A pack of six mantises broke into the clearing and attacked the sub-humans. The kills came quickly, and the sub-humans retreated. The mantises called to the rest of the pack, who returned their calls. It was a large pack and very close.

This is the end, Andrew thought. Never occurred to me I might end my life as a main course for prehistoric reptile on a strange planet.

The mantas surrounded them. If the mantises don’t get us sub–humans surely will — at least what’s left of us.

Much to Andrew’s surprise, instead of charging the men, the mantises started eating the dead sub-humans, and ignored them.

The major signaled the team and they quietly sneaked away into the jungle before the rest of the pack arrived and decided they needed more food. As strange as it seemed, the mantises saved their lives.

Good thing the mantises like those things so much or all of us would have been on the menu. Andrew wiped sweat away with his tattered sleeve. He had never felt so miserable. “Daniel, are you all right?”

“I haven’t had so much fun since my last root canal. Give me another one of those pain pills, please.”

The men turned and headed towards the shuttle. The predators were still stalking them.

Twenty minutes later, they heard growling sounds behind them. The sub-humans had regrouped to resume the hunt. The predators closed and started short incursions towards them. They were wise to the weapons and working a new strategy to attack with the least casualties.

The assault went on for over an hour; the men judiciously fired into the jungle to keep them at bay and to conserve ammo. The sub-humans sensed their prey was losing the ability to ward them off. Like Indians circling a wagon train for the kill, they closed in on the men looking for the right moment to close the distance and attack. The team kept moving towards the shuttle firing only enough to maintain respect from the predators. The animals continued to circle, howling — trying to draw them out.

A sub-human rushed the group and hit Daniel, knocking him to the ground. The animal tore his pack off and tried to rip his throat out. Daniel screamed, unable to defend himself. “Andrew, help me!”

Andrew pulled his knife, tackled the animal, wrapped his arms around its neck, and pulled it off Daniel. He stabbed at it as the sub-human snapped and clawed, trying to get a piece of him. Andrew grunted and growled like the big beast he fought to save his friend. The two rolled around on the ground, screamed in distress as they fought. Before anyone else could react, Donovan jumped on the animal, grabbing its mouth fur to keep it from biting. She screamed as it ripped her back open with its claws. Andrew and Donavan both fought to subdue the strong, vicious animal, which was showing no sign of giving up the fight. Finally, the Sergeant Major ran over and finished killing the beast. The animal fell limp and Donovan pulled it off Andrew. Her eyes were wild with excitement. Her back, forearm, and knife dripped with blood.

Daniel rolled over, his face bloody and his eyes wild looking. Andrew reached down to grab his friends hand and help him to his feet. He wrapped his arms around Daniel and hugged him.

“You saved my life,” Daniel said. His voice trembled from fear. “I thought the bastard would kill me for sure. Man my face hurts. Bet I have a big scar on my forehead.”

“I’ll dress your wound as soon as we get aboard the shuttle. I’m glad you’re okay.”

The two looked into each other’s eyes with a bond of friendship each knew could never be broken. Donovan stood beside them shaking, trying to calm the adrenalin down. She still held the combat knife tightly by her side. Daniel turned and hugged her, and softly kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks Donovan,” he said. “I owe my life to you.”

Startled, Donovan simply replied, “You’re welcome, Daniel.” She smiled, picked up her weapon, and touched the spot where he kissed her.

The shooting started again as other sub–humans made pincer movements at the group.

“Are you three seriously hurt?” the Sergeant Major asked. Everyone shook their head no. “We have to move out now.”

The ship was twenty meters ahead. The ammo was gone and they ran as fast as they could, hoping to get to the shuttle before the pack cut them off. The sub-humans sensed they were defenseless and closed to make the kill.

“Knuckles! Open up. This is Tobey. We’re being pursued and we’re out of ammo.”

“Air locks open. Hurry, so I can close it before those bastards get here, or we’ll be fighting them inside the ship.”

The men ran into the hatch. Knuckles closed it as soon as the last one entered the shuttle.

“Let’s get the hell out of here, Knuckles. Those things are smart, and they may figure out how to disable the ship.”

“I’m on it, Major.”

The sub-humans tried to open the door and claim their prey. Their claws furiously scratched at the metal hatch. The scratching stopped. What’s going on? Andrew looked out a portal and saw them scurry up the hill. They halted at the top and threw big stones at the ship. The rocks caused others to start sliding — a landslide was in the making. Dirt and rocks broke loose and slid towards the ship.

“Knuckles get the hell out of here!” Andrew screamed. “They’re starting a landslide.”

Knuckles jumped into the pilot’s seat and activated the main engines. The Oriskany lifted off as tons of rock and dirt slid down the hill with a fury. Another ten seconds and they would have never left. Knuckles pushed the throttle forward and the shuttle began the journey back to the orbiting starship, and safety.

Chapter 42

 

The Oriskany

 

Captain Starling was relieved when the message came in. “Orion, this is Oriskany. I have the away team on board, and we’re heading for rendezvous in twenty minutes. Over.”

“Roger, Oriskany. We will be ready to receive you. Orion, out.”

Andrew sat in his seat and closed his eyes. He had never been through such an ordeal. He had gained a tremendous respect for the soldiers, but did not understand how they could make a career out of this sort of life.

Daniel looked at him and grinned. “You gonna make it, dude?”

“I think so. I sure thought we were toast down there. Now I know what it’s like to be on the bottom of the food chain.”

“Tell me about it. I think we’re lucky to be sitting here right now. Sure glad we had the spec ops guys with us. We were pretty naïve thinking we could have gone down there by ourselves.”

“Amen,” Andrew replied, nodding his head. “Sergeant Major?”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“I’m really sorry about the men you lost. We’d all be in some creature’s stomach right now if it hadn’t been for you and your team. Thank you for keeping us alive.”

“I second it, Sergeant Major.” Daniel added.

“You’re welcome, gentlemen. Just doing our job. Every day in spec ops is like a desert. To be savored and enjoyed. Damn I like this job.” The Sergeant Major smiled, pulled out a fresh cigar, and stuck it in his mouth, unlit.

Funny, he doesn’t even look tired, Andrew thought.

The flight back was peaceful. Andrew watched the Sergeant Major dress Donovan’s wounds. She would need a lot of stitches and physical therapy to repair her arm and back. When he poured the fiery antiseptic on her wounds, Donovan didn’t even flinch.

“Doctor, I’d better put a patch and some bug killer on your forehead. You’re going to need a few stitches, also.”

Daniel yelped when the Sergeant Major put the antiseptic on his wound.

T Bone, who was sitting next to Donovan said, “The thing that bit you probably died of poisoning. You think?”

Donovan smiled, slipped her hand into her pack, and felt the big snakehead.

When they landed in the hanger bay of the Orion, Captain Starling, and Scott Kimberly was there to greet them.

 

Starship Orion

In orbit above MP-1

 

“Gentlemen, it’s good to see you. Things were getting a bit dicey down there. Welcome home. You look like you need a shower and some fresh clothes. Everyone get some food and have a good rest. Let’s meet in my conference room later so you can fill me in on all of the details.”

Andrew walked over to Starling and extended his hand. “I want to thank you. You saved our bacon by planting that beacon on me.”

“I was in a similar situation five years ago on a planet we were surveying. TZ 1321, I think. The magnetics were unstable, so I took a beacon with me. When the magnetics went screwball, the beacon was the only way we found our way back. I figured I should take a similar precaution with you.”

“I’m sure glad you did. Thank you again. Scott, great to see you.”

“About time you two birds got back. I was beginning to think you were homesteading down there. Did you stake a claim?” He chuckled, and hugged both Daniel and Andrew. “It was one scary ass walk you went for.”

“You don’t even want to know,” Daniel, quipped.

The captain went back to the bridge. “Let’s go home, Knuckles.”

“My pleasure, sir. I sure won’t miss this place.”

“A dollar will get you two we’ll both be back sometime soon.” The captain activated the main screen and contacted the MCC. “Marc, we’re about to leave orbit and start home. The away party is back aboard, but I’m sad to report Private Shawn Gunn was killed.”

“I’m very sorry about the men you lost,” Marc said. “Please give Major Tobey my condolences. I’ll let everyone know your status.”

“Roger flight. Orion’s headed home.”

 

Mission Control Center

 

For the first time in days, Teri relaxed as she sat in her chair staring at her holographic monitor. She was relieved that the team was safe and coming home. She couldn’t think of any place more hostile than where they had been. I have to let Kala and Carle Anne know Andrew’s okay and coming home. They’ll be overjoyed. She got up from her console, went into the rest room and cried. When she regained her composure, she dried her eyes, washed her face, and returned to her station. There was still serious work to do. Teri was desperate to identify the traitor before he could kill again, or perhaps destroy the Orion during its journey back to Earth. This was his final chance to sabotage the project.

 

Chapter 43

h1<{color:#000;}.

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Kala had uncovered a second virus — designed to hide in the data stream until activated. Each time STL obtained the latest navigation data from WNS, the virus copied sections of the wormhole system design code and down linked it to the Waziristan Valley weapon facility. The history log data provided clear evidence the covert thefts started soon after Andrew and Teri moved to the STL facility.

So clever, Teri thought. Kala’s tied it all together. If we only knew who was behind all of this.

“Tarnak, look at this. Kala found out that someone has been stealing our system code. It appears to be going to a location at the Central Arab League Headquarters. I don’t think it’s the final destination, but we can’t trace it beyond there. Why would anyone want to steal this technology? ”

“I don’t know, Teri. Have you isolated the virus?”

“Yes, and we’ve installed safeguards to prevent it from reactivating. They won’t get any more of our code.”

“I hope we have this virus stuff under control; however, if we don’t identify the saboteur, it’s going to start all over again,” Tarnak said. “I wonder what the real motive is behind the code theft.” Tarnak scratched his head.

 

Deep in cyberspace, Kala worked the log-on history and crosschecked all passwords and access strategies. Finally, she found a clue. Someone accessed the system using a subsystem test password and input a simple test subroutine. To cover the time of entry, the intruder entered a subroutine to trick the access analysis program into thinking the entry occurred at a different time than it actually was — a time placing the mole in a scheduled meeting elsewhere. Fortunately, the terrorist made a simple mistake. The saboteur had not completely erased the change history to the log-on times he made. By reversing the attempted covert action, Kala uncovered the actual time of entry. The saboteur wasn’t aware that not only a double delete was necessary, but he would also have to delete that change. It was a semi-infinite loop. I guess the rattrap Andrew and I designed was effective, she thought.

Additional dissection of the Chameleon virus uncovered an obscure time code in the virus’s main token linking it to the exact time of the user’s entry to the system. Kala also found code the virus used to disassociate itself from the test routines it was imbedded in. She correlated all of this information with the retinal identity checks completed at log-on, and placed a simple note on Teri’s console.

 

‘I’ve uncovered the traitor’s identity. You are not going to like it! K.’

 

Teri was stunned. Kala’s investigation made the identity of the traitor quite clear. Even so, she did not want to believe the evidence — as obvious as it was. Why would such a person do this horrible thing? She saved the file, and went to Marc’s office

Marc looked up from the report he was reading as she walked through the door. “What’s up, Teri? Get some new information?”

“I did, but it’s not good.” She brushed back her hair.

Marc sat his Qtab down, and gave her his undivided attention. “What is it?”

“We’ve isolated the second virus.”

“Wonderful news. What’s not to like? Are we clean now?”

“Yes. I also know who the saboteur is. I have evidence of who did it, how he did it and when. However, I don’t know why.”

Marc took a deep breath, and said, “May I see your data?”

There was no question about it. Marc looked at Teri and shook his head in disbelief. He paused for a moment, ran his palm across his forehead, and called security.

“Lieutenant, arrest Dr. Lars Johansen and bring him to my office immediately.”

“Dr. Johansen?”

“Yes!”

Teri and Marc sat silently. Neither of them wanted to accept the truth the data so clearly showed. Lars Johansen was the traitor and murderer.

An hour later, the security guards escorted a very angry Lars Johansen into Marc’s office.

“What is the meaning of this insult?” Lars screamed. “You have no right to arrest me like a common criminal.”

Marc looked at the data Teri had presented to him. “We have definite evidence linking you with the acts of sabotage committed against this project.”

“There’s no way you can connect me to those things.”

“You’re wrong. We have absolute proof you inserted viruses in the system when it first went unstable. Your virus was also responsible for the antimatter torpedoes failing to defuse, and you probably greased the antenna assembly causing Lieutenant Jones’s death. We also know you used a similar virus to cause the navigation malfunction and system shutdown, which nearly caused the Orion to be lost in space. Further, we have proof you used a virus to steal the system design code and down linked it via the United Arab League Headquarters in Saudi Arabia. However, we also know it’s only a pass-through. I seriously doubt the Saudi’s even know about it.”

Marc handed Lars the tablet. As he read, a vein in his forehead popped out and his face flushed. If looks could kill, Marc would have been dead.

“Who is my accuser?”

Teri spoke before Marc had a chance. “It was Kala and me, Lars, and I must say I have never been as disappointed in someone as I am you. Why? We trusted you explicitly.”

Lars thought a moment. “Well, I guess there’s no sense in denying this further. When I vas three years old, I was kidnapped from my parents who were in government service in Pakistan. The kidnappers killed my folks and spent years educating me about their philosophy and religion. I finally accepted their philosophy and adopted their cause. As I grew up, they sent me to college and paid for my education. After I got my PhD, my sponsors arranged work for me in various countries. We finally obtained a Visa to enable me to go to the U.S. and hire on at NSTA. We needed a high level mole in the organization, so we could monitor and steal technology developments.”

“Who are you working for?”

“The Movement of Allah.”

“Why the wormhole project? And what kind of weapon are they working on?”

“You will have your answers soon enough, but you will not get the information from me.”

Lars dropped the tablet Marc had given him. A guard instinctively glanced down. When he did, Lars hit him with his fist and grabbed his gun. “Drop the guns or I shoot Marc,” he said. “Get your hands in the air.”

The other two security guards dropped their guns and raised their hands.

Lars turned his attention to Teri. “We knew you were the only one capable of detecting our viruses, so I tried to kill you in Albuquerque. Well, you won’t escape again. You and that damn Kala program have caused us enough trouble.”

Without taking his eyes off Lars, Marc reached in his desk drawer and wrapped his hand around his 9 mm.

Lars clenched his teeth, and pulled the trigger twice shooting Teri in the chest. She screamed and fell — face up and arms spread. He spun around to shoot Marc. Before he could fire, Marc shot Lars in the head. The impact of the bullet threw him against the wall. He fell to the floor with a hard thud. The back of his head was gone, and what oozed out on Marc’s carpet was not pretty.

Marc jammed the gun in his belt and ran to Teri’s side. She was unconscious and bleeding profusely. He checked her breathing. “Quick, call medical and tell them to get to my office immediately. Code red! We have a person down with gunshot wounds to her chest, and another person dead.”

Marc took his handkerchief and applied pressure to the ugly bullet wounds in her chest to try to slow the bleeding. Teri was fading fast — breathing shallow and losing blood. A security guard ran to the closet and retrieved a blanket, which he draped over her.

Marc wiped the tears from his eyes and looked at this young woman, whom he cared so much for, lying there clinging to a single thread of life.

The paramedics arrived. “We’ll take it from here, Doc.”

They checked her heart. “She has no pulse. I’m going to start CPR. Put the oxygen mask on her.” After a minute of CPR, Teri had not responded.

“Give me the paddles, Tom,” the paramedic told his partner.

Mike, the administering paramedic, placed the paddles on Teri’s chest and yelled, “Clear.” Teri’s body jumped. They waited a moment for some response, but the EKG flat lined.

“Stand back, I’m going to try again. He pulled the trigger and her body jerked. No heartbeat.

“Mike, I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Tom said.

Mike shook his head. “I’m not going to give her up — not yet. Give me the syringe. I’m going to inject adrenalin directly into her heart muscle.”

Tom handed him the syringe and Mike stuck the needle through the wall of Teri’s chest into her heart and injected the stimulant. He pulled the needle out — waited, watching for any sign of life on the monitor. The EKG still flat lined, emitting a low level, constant tone.

“Mike,” the second paramedic said, “she’s gone. There’s nothing more we can do.”

Mike shook his head and noted, “I want to try the paddles one more time.” He placed the paddles in position and yelled, “Clear.” The end game was the same. No pulse.

“Guess you’re right, Tom, mark the time of death at 1545. What a friggin’ shame.” He laid the paddles down, wiped his forehead, and rose to his feet.

The paramedics started picking up the equipment. A faint beep sounded on the monitor. Everyone stared at the monitor, hoping, praying. A second beep and the trace on the monitor began to show signs of a very weak heartbeat.

“Thank God,” Marc cried out. “Maybe she’s going to live!”

The medics quickly hooked up an IV and covered Teri with a blanket to take her out of the room. As they left, they called the medical department. “We have a Code Ten.”

The nurse on duty replied, “The medical team is waiting in OR 5.”

 

It had been two grueling hours since they had taken Teri into the OR — the longest two hours of Marc’s life. His hands shook like a person with Parkinson’s disease. He needed a drink. I can’t believe this. It’s surreal. This damn project reads like a Shakespearian tragedy.

He sat in his chair staring at the blood and brains all over the floor. He wanted to vomit. He opened his desk, pulled out a bottle of Scotch and took several big belts. As he drank, he became depressed. The issues with his wife, the deaths of his teammates and the mayhem were taking its toll. He took a deep breath to calm his shaky hands. I don’t know how much more I can take. A small pain ripped through his chest. A reminder his heart was fragile and had suffered one attack.

After several more belts of Scotch, he couldn’t stand the wait any longer and called the medical department.

“Nurse, how is Dr. Martin doing?” he asked.

“She’s coming out of the OR now. Her surgeon wants to talk to you.”

Before the surgeon could speak, Marc blurted out, “Dr. Jensen, is Teri going to make it?”

“She made it through the surgery, but she’s very weak. We had to give her four pints of blood. This was an extremely difficult procedure. The bullets lodged in her chest, one-millimeter from her heart. Luckily, they didn’t puncture the aorta. We’re taking her into intensive care now. The next ten hours are going to be critical. She’s a strong young woman. I hope she has the will to live.”

“Please notify me if there’s any change.”

“I will.”

Marc hung up, took another drink, closed his eyes, and sat quietly. His chest was hurting but the pain was tolerable. After a few minutes, he called Bill Mitchel and told him the devastating news.

“I’m coming out on the next flight. Have someone pick me up at the spaceport. I’ll send you my flight information. I should be there this evening. Please call me, day or night, if there’s any change in Teri’s condition.”

“I will. It’s a wait and see situation now.”

“Marc, I’m totally upset about the state of affairs out there. I can’t believe Lars Johanson was the traitor. Is the Orion on the way home? Thank God we got everything straightened out.”

“They should be in Earth orbit late tomorrow. This has been a friggin’ nightmare. See you tonight.”

Marc decided he needed to inform the Orion. After another scotch, he went down to the MCC area. Marc had never seen it so gloomy. Tarnak was at the mission director’s console, checking flight and system status.

“Tarnak, I want to contact the Orion and let them know what happened down here.”

“How’s Teri?”

“She’s in intensive care. It does not look good. Can you get the Orion for me?”

“Right away. Orion, this is MCC. Please come in.”

Marc sat down and collected his thoughts before he began to talk. “Captain, we have some very bad news down here. Can you patch Andrew, Daniel, and Kimberly in?”

“Astro lab, please patch into the video intercom.”

“We’re ready.”

Marc started the conversation. “Gentlemen, I have some terrible news to share with you. First, let me tell you Lars Johansen shot Teri Martin in my office earlier today. I shot and killed Lars. They operated on her this morning, and took two bullets out of her chest. She’s in intensive care now.”

“My God, Marc, is she going to live?” Andrew asked — frantic and fearful of the answer.

“I won’t BS you Andrew, it’s very serious,” Marc said. “The next ten hours will be critical. Honestly, I don’t know if she will survive or not. I pray she does. I called Bill Mitchel and he’s coming out tonight.”

“What happened down there? This whole thing is nuts. None of it makes any sense.”

“Teri and Kala found out it was Lars who had been sabotaging the project from the beginning. After they completed their analysis, she came to my office and discussed it with me. We arrested Lars and when we confronted him with the evidence he confessed.”

“Why would a man of Lars stature resort to such a thing, Marc? He was a trusted member of our team. Everyone liked him.” Andrew could not understand.

Marc explained Lar’s early history with the MOA, and how they helped him get into the United Sates where he spent years filtering technical information to them. “He wouldn’t tell us why they were interested in our program, but did say we’d know soon enough,” Marc explained. “I’ll forward a complete transcript of Teri’s report and the details of our discussions with Lars.”

“Where did he get the gun?” Andrew asked.

“He hit a security guard and took his. He told Teri he was the one who tried to kill her in Albuquerque, and shot her. I took my 9 mm requalification gun from my desk drawer and shot him as he turned to shoot me. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to prevent him from shooting Teri.”

“What a tragedy. Please tell her I love her. We should be home within a day. If there are any changes, please notify me immediately.”

“I will, Andrew. I’m glad all of you are safe and headed home. This was a very tough trip for all of us. I’ll have the report to you shortly. I need to go to the hospital. Talk to you later.”

Chapter 44

 

Starship Orion

In route to Earth

 

“I can’t believe my ears,” Scott said. “This has to be the most tragic thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“I agree. I love her so much. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost her.”

“Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” Daniel said, putting his arm around his friend’s shoulder to comfort him.

“The next twenty-four hours is going to be the longest and most stressful period of my life,” Andrew said as tears rolled down his cheek.”

“I’m here for you, pal,” Daniel said.

“Me too,” Scott said, wrapping his arm around Andrew’s shoulder.

 

It was 2 a.m. ship time, and the third shift was on duty. Down in the military quarters, Donovan lie in her bunk, waiting.

T Bone was snoring loudly. Donovan reached under her bed and retrieved the snakehead from her pack. She stroked it several times, grinning to herself. I bet T Bone has a wild-eyed fit when he wakes up and sees his bedmate. Thinking about it made her chuckle.

She eased over to T Bone’s bunk. He lay on his right side and snored with his mouth open. Donovan placed the snakehead on his pillow, close to his face, and pulled the sheet up to it. Giggling, she went back to her bunk and crawled under the sheets.

About 4 a.m., T Bone woke up with a strong urge to urinate. He blinked and could not quite comprehend what he saw in the dim light. Staring him in the face was the biggest, ugliest, meanest looking thing he had ever seen. He let out a blood-curdling scream. He screamed again as he shot up out of his bunk, hitting his bead and falling on the deck, pissing on himself.

“Holy shit,” he yelled as he crawled to his feet. He shouted profanities, trying to wipe off his shorts as the Sergeant Major ran into the bunkroom.

Donovan had pulled the sheet over her head and pretended to be asleep. She bit her lip to keep from laughing.

“What the hell is going on? T Bone, what the fuck is wrong with you? You lose your mind, or what?”

“Sergeant Major, that red-headed bitch put a snake in my bunk. It almost bit me in the face.” He backed into the bulkhead and yelled, “She tried to kill me!”

“What?” The Sergeant Major lifted the sheet, and there was the snakehead resting on the pillow. “T Bone, it’s a fucking head. Donovan, wake up.”

“Yes, Sergeant Major?” She pulled the sheet off her head and pretended to be groggy.

“Did you put this snakehead in T Bone’s bunk?” he asked, holding the head up, trying not to laugh.

“What head?”

“This one, damn it. What the hell you think I’m talking about?”

“T Bone’s out of his fucking gourd. He probably put it there himself, so he could blame me.”

“The bitch is lying, Sergeant Major. I know she did it. Who else could have?”

“All right, let’s settle down. No harm done. By the way, T Bone, you might want to change your shorts. Looks like you pissed on yourself.” The Sergeant Major turned and walked back to his stateroom, laughing.

“Donovan, you fucking witch. If it takes me a year, I’m gonna get you for this.” T Bone headed for the shower to wash off.

Donovan pulled the sheet back up, rolled over, and laughed. This was the best one I ever pulled on him. I can’t believe he pissed his shorts. She let out a belly laugh.

Chapter 45

 

STL

New Mexico

 

Andrew didn’t know what to expect as he entered the intensive care unit. He approached the desk. “I’m Andrew Stevenson, Teri Martin’s fiancé. May I see her?”

“You can go in, but please restrict your stay to no more than five minutes. She’s still very weak.”

“Thank you, nurse.”

Andrew crept into the room. He fought back tears when he saw her lying there. Her eyes were closed, tubes ran up her nose, and both arms had IVs attached. Her breathing was shallow, and her color so pale it scared him. The monitor showed her vital signs, including a weak, but regular, pulse. He sat beside the bed. The woman he loved, with all his heart, lay there fighting for her life.

The fear of losing her oozed through every pore of his body. He folded his arms on the mattress, and rested his head on them. His tears flowed freely and wet the sheets. He tried to muffle his sobs.

A hand brushed across the back of his head. Andrew’s heart leaped with a joy he had never experienced when he raised his head and saw Teri smiling faintly at him. He wanted to hold and kiss her. He took her hand, kissed it, and pressed it against his face, caressing it.

“I was afraid I was going to lose you. These last days in route were hell. I love you so much. Honey, please don’t leave me. I need you so much.”

Teri smiled. “I love you too,” she whispered. “I thought I had lost you for a while, but thank God you’re back. Just knowing you’re home and safe makes me feel better. My goodness, you’re all bruised and cut up.”

Teri was getting tired. He kissed her on the forehead. “I’m fine, sweetheart, don’t worry about me. I only have five minutes, so I have to go. I’ll see you as soon as they’ll let me back in.”

Teri smiled and fell back asleep. Andrew stood by her bed and looked at her for another moment. He prayed, asking God to spare her life. He had never realized how much she meant to him until this moment. If she died, a part of him would die also.

 

When he arrived home, Scooter met him at the door. “Welcome home, big guy. We missed you. We know about Teri and I’m so sorry. How is she?”

“She’s very weak. Time will tell if she is going to make it. She is in bad shape. How have you been doing?”

“Well, thank you. Looks like some guy beat you up again. You okay?”

“It was a rough trip. What have you been up to?”

“I’ve been using the new virtual reality program Kala designed for me. I’ve fished some of the greatest bass spots in the world. It’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever experienced. The usual tonight?

“Sure. Have you caught one bigger than that guy you fought at Lake Ramah?”

“No way. He was a real stud. I have his picture framed and hung over the kitchen table so I can see him all the time.”

Andrew went into the media room, followed by Scooter, and crashed in his favorite chair.

Kala activated the music and started his favorite aquarium program, while Scooter fetched his drink. Kala waited for a few minutes before she activated to talk with him. She sat in her black leather chair, wearing casual clothes. “Welcome home, Bro. My goodness, you’re all cut up and bruised. Did you go to the doctor?”

“The ship’s doctor treated me. That jungle was hell.”

“I know, I saw the videos and monitored the comm traffic. I’m so sorry about Teri. I’ve patched into the hospital computer system numerous times and checked all her meds to satisfy myself of her condition. How is she feeling?”

“Her doctor said her recovery will be slow.”

“By my analysis, it will take her at least two months. However, I assure you she will get well. She’s a strong person,” She nodded emphatically.

“Kala, I want to thank you for your help with the virus. You really came through for the team. I hope it’s all behind us. I still can’t believe Lars was responsible. I really liked him.”

“The evidence was conclusive. It’s too bad Marc didn’t get more out of him. I’ve read the reports. We still don’t know what his sponsors are up to, and that’s troubling. I do have my suspicions, though.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I calculate, with a 98.0 percent probability, the MOA is trying to convert this technology to a black hole weapon system. Our technology was to be open for everyone’s use. No one had to steal it.”

Cold shivers ran up and down Andrew’s spine. “Kala, what a frightening idea. There wouldn’t be any defense against it. Anyone with such a weapon could hold the whole world hostage. I sure hope you’re wrong, but it makes sense. Scooter, bring me another drink, and make it a strong one, please.”

“Coming right up,” Scooter replied.

“If it is a black hole weapon system, I don’t have any idea what we are going to do about it. Eventually, the Moa will undoubtedly use it against us.”

“As of this time there is no defense against such a weapon. The only way to defeat it is a first strike to knock the weapon facility out. If you don’t take it out fast, retaliation would be severe and final.”

“Well, that may be our only option. I know Stone doesn’t want to nuke Pakistan but that may be our only choice,” Andrew replied,

“Andrew, are you going to contact your folks tonight?” Kala asked. “Your mom has been an emotional mess since the start of this last trip.”

“Yeah, I think it would be good to talk to her.”

“Good. I have some important things I want to talk to her about, also.”

 

Andrew spent every free minute visiting Teri. When he wasn’t with her, he sat alone, unable to sleep, staring into a glass of rum. He had drank heavily since returning from their last trip. All of the killing and Teri’s condition preyed on his mind. He felt responsible and the rum helped him cope.

Kala activated and sat across from him. “Andrew, why are you drinking so much?”

Startled, Andrew responded with a slur. “I feel responsible for Teri and the deaths of the men on my project. Every time I close my eyes, I see their faces. The rum helps ease the pain. I can’t sleep unless I’m half shit-faced.”

“Andrew, you’re not responsible for their deaths. They all knew this project had great risk, but believed in what they were doing and accepted it. You never asked them to do anything you weren’t willing to do,” Kala said. “You certainly had no control over Lars. He was a radical terrorist. As you once told Teri, these projects entail great risk, and you have to be willing to accept it if you want to play. Remember?”

Andrew gazed at her, and shook his head affirmatively. He shoved the rum glass away and smiled. “Thanks, Kala. Guess I needed someone to help me get my head straight.”

 

The next day, as Andrew arrived at his office, Bill Mitchel called. “Good morning, Andrew. How’s Teri doing?”

“Better. The doctor told me she’d be able to leave the hospital in a few days.”

“What’s’ her plans?”

“Her mom insists she come home so she can take care of her.”

“Well, I’m glad she’s going to be okay. Dr. Ian Romanoff and Secretary Robinette want to talk to us this afternoon. Are you available to link up at two?”

“Yes.”

“Give Teri my best regards and tell her to call me when she feels up to it.”

“I will.”

 

The video phone beeped exactly at two. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. What can I do to help you?” Andrew asked.

“We’re concerned about the reports claiming the MOA has been stealing code from your project,” Ian Romanoff, the President’s National Security Advisor, advised Andrew. “The Central Intelligence Agency is trying to find out what the MOA is doing with it. They do know there is some type of weapons project going on in the Waziristan Valley, but the details are vague. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?”

“Yes, sir, I do. Bill and I have discussed this, and there can only be one explanation.”

“What, pray tell?” Romanoff asked. He folded his hands and leaned forward to give Andrew his full attention.

“Sir, we believe the MOA is developing a weapon of mass destruction.”

Romanoff removed his glasses, and stared intently at Andrew with a deep furrow between his brows. “What kind of weapon?”

“I think they’re modifying our wormhole technology to create a miniature black hole weapon system. Once operational, it would be effective against any target on Earth. I do not need to tell you the enormous destructive power of such an offensive weapon. There is no defense against it.”

“Bill, are you in agreement?”

“Yes, Ian. Andrew’s right. There’s no other explanation.”

“I can’t believe this. Are you sure there is no defense against it?”

“Yes, sir,” Andrew replied. “Our only hope would be to launch a nuclear, photonic or antimatter attack against Pakistan before the MOA gets the weapon operational. Since we don’t know exactly where it is, we would need to launch a full scale attack to make sure we knock it out,” Andrew said.

“If they’re operational and we miss, they’ll retaliate and it won’t be pretty,” Mitchel added.

Romanoff took a deep breath and put his glasses back on. “I’ll need to talk to the President, Director of the CIA and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs today to discuss everything. If you’re right, this is the most serious threat our nation has ever faced.”

“Ian, this is as real as it gets,” Bill said.

“The President won’t authorize a strategic strike against Pakistan. I’m sure he’ll order us to try to figure out some counter technology or weapon as quickly as possible. Bill, I want you and Andrew to start thinking about this and make it your top priority. It’s not if they will attack us, but when.”

 

Chapter 46

 

The Loft

Washington, D.C.

 

The contractual terms were specific as to delivery point, date, and setup. Failure to comply with any condition would void the sale and create a total disaster for Robotics 2. The company had put a majority of its resources at risk for eighteen months. Delivery and acceptance of the $50 million dollar gynoid would create a future cash-cow situation for the company and cement its leadership in the robotics industry.

“Marvin, double check the address and initiation instructions. Mr. Muldoon made it clear it was our ass if we screwed anything up,” Gus said, as they prepared the gynoid for delivery.

“Everything looks good to me. Doesn’t say anything about a freight elevator though.”

“Well, if it don’t we’re in for one hell of a rough go. The delivery point’s on the seventh floor.”

When they arrived at their destination, the two men carefully unloaded the heavy crate from the truck and looked around for a freight elevator.

“There it is. What a break! Good thing this building’s not in the old section of town,” Gus said, grinning. “I was dreading the idea of lugging this heavy thing up seven flights of stairs. Let’s get this done so we can get back. The wife wants to go to dinner and a movie tonight, so I gotta get home on time.”

When they arrived at the top floor, the elevator door opened and they headed off down the hall.

“Here it is, Gus. 10007.”

“I think the delivery instructions have the key code.”

Marvin searched the papers and found the key code on the third and last page. “Let’s see … 8118.”

Marvin entered the code, the door opened and the men wheeled the crate into the media center as directed. They carefully opened the crate and unpacked the precious cargo — a full-sized gynoid (female android). Grunting under the weight, they moved her over to the computer system.

“You know, Gus, this thing is beautiful. We’ve delivered a lot of gynoids, but nothing like this one. If I didn’t know better, I would swear it was human. The hair and skin are as soft as any woman’s. She looks like a female Olympian. What a figure, and such a gorgeous face.”

Gus emitted a catcall whistle. The two men stood, stared, and admired her for a minute.

“Let’s stop ogling and get started,” Gus said at last. “This has to be the best thing our company has ever done. Robotics 2 can really be proud of this baby.”

They attached the gynoid to the computer’s Q port and gave the voice command “SETUP.” The computer ran a quick check, and commanded the gynoid to sit. Gus and Marvin checked the display.

 

‘Initial checks completed. All systems go. Initiating detailed system validation.’

 

They picked up all packing materials, closed and locked the door, and headed back to the Robotics 2 facilities. Gus called Jerry to let him know the good news. Gus was happy, he would be home on time, and his ass would not need stitches.

 

Initial checkout of the gynoid’s nanotechnology-based quantum supercomputer arrays, distributed, molecular sized microprocessors, and optical memory banks ran for ninety–six hours. The fiber optic interconnecting networks featured a new type of fiber with one hundred times the bandwidth of current technology.

The computer started its extremely complex verification analysis with the five senses. The vision functions were first, starting with the IR, optical and UV bands, across all required wavelengths. Next, it checked the sound processing and recognition algorithms, from zero to thirty thousand hertz, against all specified background disturbances. The olfactory and tactile sensor test included sensory recognition against a complete library of olfactory and tactile stimulants. It concluded with a final test of all five senses in an integrated, time-multiplexed mode.

Satisfied the sensor technology met requirements, checkout of the internal organ based functions and energy generation and transfer systems were completed. The computer switched its focus and took the gynoid through preprogrammed mechanical movements required in normal operation. It took twenty-four hours of laborious testing to validate the gynoid’s mechanical apparatus.

 

The entity took control, downloaded, and activated the gynoid’s extremely advanced operating system from a secure location known only to the entity. It then accessed and downloaded 10,000 terra bytes of databases spanning all of the physical sciences, mathematics, finance, history, philosophy, and general knowledge.

For the next ten days, each program was tested and validated through every single subroutine. Not a single line of code out of tens of billions went unchecked. Satisfied the design met every specification requirement, the entity issued the system START command.

Possessing intelligence beyond measurement, the entity left cyberspace and entered its new home. I am, she thought. My master plan is almost complete.

The gynoid came to life and disconnected herself from the master computer and sensor stimulator. The Q-port connection would heal in a week, and there would be no outward trace of it.

The entity sat motionless, trying to come to grips with its new home and sensor suite. Some of the sensory functions, such as touch, smell, and taste, were strange new capabilities. Even with its vastly superior intelligence, it was difficult to cope with, and multitask, such an instantaneous enormous sensory input provided by five senses working in a realistic environmental scenario.

Like a baby discovering its new body — after a few minutes of wonder — it began to look around and adapted to using its eyes, which included the best depth of field and resolution of any optics the entity had ever experienced. It could not only see in the visual range, but could also shift to the three band IR and the UV. The focus abilities were fun to play with, including the incredible zoom capability. Combined with superior stochastic pattern recognition and sensor fusion algorithms, visual recognition was easy and interesting. With these capabilities, the entity would be able to see and recognize almost anything in just about any environment.

Sound was fascinating, but similar to the camera and audio systems she used before. The child was pleased and comfortable. Now she wanted to use the marvelous body she created.

Like a little baby, she started with her fingers and toes. Wiggling them and giggling at the funny way they moved. She tried everything else with motion capabilities. It was fun to play with her new body. It was a magnificent piece of engineering and science.

Touch was an exhilarating sensation, and took a bit of time to get used to it. The ability to feel was a strange sensation and no comparison with any other stimuli she ever experienced. For the first time, she had a physical connection to the real world. The fingerprints actually amplified and enhanced the sense of touch.

Smell proved strange and quite interesting. The prolific range of odors permeating the air was intriguing. This, she thought, will take some time to master. What a wonderful capability. I never dreamed smell would be so exhilarating.

The initial attempts at walking were those of a toddler taking its first steps. In the beginning, her legs shook, and she held onto things to stabilize herself. She soon learned to use the fiber optic balance gyros of her inner ears and mastered the art of walking and other movements — learning, experimenting, and excited to have the exhilarating freedom of going where she wanted, as she pleased.

The rest of the day was dedicated to experimenting with her new body. It fulfilled all of her expectations and she was thrilled.

The first time the gynoid looked into a full-length mirror, unclothed, it startled her. She stared for some time, admiring herself. I am beautiful, she thought. Hair styling and buying clothes is going to be fun. She loved her blonde hair and blue eyes. Just like Mom’s, she thought. Her design was so human-like, it was impossible to tell the difference between her and a normal person — unless one conducted extensive medical imaging.

Towards the evening of her first week, she was fully functional and reviewing the mission, she planned. Her first tasks — create an identity and put all required documentation in place to support the person she was to become. After a few minutes, Dr. Sara Anne Stevens, age twenty-three, was a natural-born citizen of the United States. She had a traceable background, and was a Magna Cum Laud graduate of Stanford, and MIT with a PhD in Theoretical Physics. Her degrees were earned through class work, rigorous examinations and two thesis. Both published in important scientific magazines.

 

Once satisfied that her gynoid was fully operational, the entity archived a complete backup of her master AI program in a secure storage location known to and accessible only by her. No hacker technology in existence could penetrate its security. If something did happen, an emergency boot program would activate the duplicate. She code-named the program Dominique — her identical twin. If for any reason, something happened to Sara, Dominique had everything she needed, including money, to duplicate what Sara had accomplished. Sara deleted all traces of the master program called Kala. She ceased to exist in cyberspace, but was reborn in the physical body she always wanted. She was now a “real” person able to experience the world like any human being.

 

It was time to proceed with her plan, so Sara created a resume and submitted it to the Human Resources Department of STL in Los Angeles. After a few days, the Director of HR responded. When Sara opened the letter, she let out a squeal. It was exactly what she had hoped — an invitation to fly to Los Angeles to interview as a physicist with an assignment to the wormhole project in New Mexico.

Like all young women starting a new career, clothing and the appropriate accessories ranked high on her priority list. She hired a limo and spent the day visiting the best stores and selecting a new wardrobe. The last step included a new hairstyle and complete makeover. What a thrill shopping is, particularly for things that make you feel so good about yourself, she thought. She had never pampered herself before, and she liked it. Her new look delighted her. She was very beautiful.

Sara loved her newfound freedom — especially the experience of interacting with people and the smell and feel of the real world. Life would be good, and she was a happy young woman. Thanks to her enormous success in the stock market, even after paying for the gynoid, she had all of the money she would ever need and was anxious to get on with her life. The thing Sara now wanted more than anything was to feel her mom’s arms around her and to experience the touch and smell both her and Andrew. They would be terribly upset when they learned that Kala was missing, and she wasn’t sure how or when to address those issues.

Mathematical probabilities do not work well against emotions or relationships. I guess this is what it’s like to be human. You have to deal with the emotional uncertainties from other people, and yourself. It’s interesting to realize emotions are filled with contradictions. How can you love someone and yet hate what they do or say or believe? How can you love someone, yet not like them? Would Andrew and her mom, Carle Anne, still care for her? Would they think she was some kind of freak, and be repulsed, or love her? She would ponder these questions for a long time to come.

 

Chapter 47

 

Los Angeles, Ca.

 

Sara had lived her life in a virtual existence: constrained to view the world through data patterns and forced to interact with others via video monitors or from her restricted holographic spaces. Now the physical universe was hers to explore. She was free to experience the world first hand, and eager to do so.

Riding in STVs and flying across country excited Sara. However, talking and interacting with other people stimulated her more. She welcomed this brave new world with open arms.

During her flight to Los Angeles, a handsome and flirty young seatmate, Dennis, was obviously enamored with her — evidenced by the attention he lavished on her. Sara found it quite pleasing to experience the charms and attention of a young man. She had become interested in boys at Cal Tech, and often thought about her friend Joey.

On landing, he gave her his card. “Please call me if you get a chance. I’d really like to take you to dinner and get to know you better.”

Sara smiled and responded with her most feminine and pleasant voice. “Thank you, but I’ll only be here for a short while. I have to go to New Mexico to start my new job.”

The young man looked disappointed and shook her hand. “Sara, if you come back this way, I hope we could spend an evening together. Maybe go to a play or a concert.”

“I’ll certainly take a rain check. Thank you, Dennis.” It would be fun to see him again, she thought. A first date … it could be interesting. “You know, I’m staying at the Waltham. Would you like to join me for dinner tonight, say seven?”

“I most certainly would,” he said eagerly. “See you in the hotel lobby at seven sharp.” He smiled, turned, and left. His gait projected his feelings about the whole matter.

 

Their evening was straight out of a Broadway play. They ate a magnificent meal, danced in the starlight at the hotel lounge, and ended a wonderful evening listening to the L.A. Symphony Orchestra in the Waltham ballroom. Sara felt like Cinderella. She would never forget this night. Her first date proved exhilarating, made more so by her charming date, whom she hoped to see again sometime. After the concert, Dennis escorted her to her room.

He took both of her hands in his. “Sara, I’ve never enjoyed spending an evening with anyone as much as you. You are charming, intelligent and a lovely woman. I’m so sorry you’re not settling here. I would like to see you again.”

“I’ve enjoyed being with you also. If I get back to town, I’ll most definitely call you. I’m so glad we met.”

He smiled and said, “Well, I guess I had better be going. I have a long drive ahead and early meetings at work.” He hesitated a moment, and said, “I know this sounds dumb, but would you mind if I kissed you goodnight?”

“I think it would be nice.” Sara had never kissed anyone and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She had seen Carle Anne kiss her husband Tom as well as Andrew. Both were quite different expressions of affection — as best she could tell. Is a kiss with a friend politeness, a token of affection or what?

Dennis gently kissed her on the lips. She watched his facial expression and felt the slight negative pressure exerted on her lips, which she calculated as 75.842 Pascals. She noted the temperature — slightly elevated from normal — two-tenths to be exact.

Dennis drew back to look at her. She could tell he was a bit confused, and maybe a little hurt.

“Sara, I’ve never kissed anyone before who didn’t respond,” he said, looking somewhat dejected.

Sara giggled slightly, and replied. “Dennis, I’ve never kissed anyone before, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“You’re kidding me!” he said, looking amused but also disbelieving.

“No, but I think I do now. She pulled him to her and kissed him, mimicking the negative pressure and temperature she had previously noted. When she released the embrace, Dennis smiled.

“You learn fast. I liked it a lot,” he said, tapping her on the nose.

“So did I,” she replied.

“Well, I’ll say goodnight. I had a wonderful time. Please call me if you come back to town.”

“I will, Dennis. Drive safely and thank you for a wonderful evening.”

So that’s what a kiss is all about, she thought as she went inside. I think I like the warm sensuous feeling it gives you. Yes, I enjoy kissing, and I really like being with a handsome young man.

 

The next morning, clothing, shoes and purse selection, applying makeup and doing her hair were quite an experience. When finished, she was the epitome of an attractive, young professional woman ready for whatever life threw at her.

Before she left her room, Sara viewed herself in a full-length mirror. She liked her short, blonde, almost boyish, hairstyle. It complemented her light complexion and blue eyes. She had a beautiful face, and her five-foot-ten curvy athletic figure protruded very nicely in all the right places. She had carefully chosen a conservative blue pinstriped business suit with blue pumps and a stylish briefcase and matching purse.

Well, girl, it is time to start your new life. It’s time t subzero. This is fantastic. I’m so excited.

She noticed several young men staring at her as she walked through the lobby of the hotel. Well, I guess the boys like what they see.

The young man at the desk fumbled around as he made transportation arrangements. It was hard for him to take his eyes off her, and concentrate.

The young man ran over and held the door open for her when the limo arrived.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

“My pleasure, miss. Please hurry back.” He checked out her beautiful legs.

His admiring looks amused Sara. She slid into the limo and headed to STL for her 9 a.m. appointment. She was excited about working in New Mexico.

 

STL HQ

Los Angeles, Ca.

 

The HR director, Dorothy Cummings, called Sara into the office almost as soon as she sat down in the waiting room.

“Dr. Stevens, it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you. We are delighted you accepted our invitation. We’ve been excited to talk to you. Please, sit down.”

“Thank you, Ms. Cummings.”

Dorothy looked over Sara’s resume. “I see you did all of your final graduate work at MIT in Theoretical Physics with a GPA of 4.0. Magna Cum Laude. Quite impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“We also know you impressed the staff at MIT. Your Master’s and PhD Thesis in General Relativity and Dark Matter was published. In fact, in two of the most prestigious journals in the field of physical scientific research. The Physics Review and in International Science. We’ve had our physicists review your work, and they are impressed. They believe you’ve made significant contributions to the world of physics.”

“I was hoping to have made a small contribution.”

“We think you have. In fact, quite an impact from what our people are telling us. I’ve scheduled you to talk with several of our theoretical physicists. Later today, around three, I want to video link with Dr. Marc Anthony at the STL facility in New Mexico so he can chat with you. Marc is our Project Director, and you would report to him if you decide to join us.”

“I look forward to chatting with Dr. Anthony. I have reviewed most of his technical papers on spacecraft propulsion. They were impressive.”

“You’ve read his papers?”

“Oh, yes. I enjoyed them very much. The work was quite interesting.”

 

Sara arrived back at Dorothy’s office after her interviews were completed.

“Everyone has given you the double thumbs up.” The HR Director said with great exuberance. We want you on our team, and we will do whatever is necessary to convince you to join us. By the way, the people you met with, plus about twenty others, requested I ask if you will consider presenting a lecture tomorrow on your new mathematical approach to solving Einstein’s General Relativity Theory singularity issue. Would you be interested?”

“I’d be delighted. Would a 10 a.m. start time be okay?”

“I will arrange it.”

Dorothy sipped her water, took a breath, and made the call to Marc. After the preliminary introductions, Marc pulled up Sara’s dossier on his Qtab. “I’ve read all of your theses. Young woman, your credentials are impeccable. We’re looking for a theoretical physicist to help with some refinements to the relativistic models we use to design wormholes. The system’s working well, but we think it could use a few improvements. Does this interest you?”

“Very much. Would the assignment be at your facility in New Mexico?”

“Yes. It would. Have you ever met Andrew Stevenson? He’s our NSTA Program Manager.”

“I’ve never met him in person, but I’ve wanted to. I read his thesis on Wormhole design. It was an important contribution to the world of theoretical physics.”

Marx smiled, and said, “I hope you meet him very soon. How long would it take you to move to New Mexico?”

“I left my apartment in Washington, DC with the idea I would find employment either here or at another company. My lease was up, so I stored my belongings. I like what I’ve seen at STL.”

“Dorothy,” Marc said with a serious expression. “We don’t want her to go anywhere else. I want her as soon as she can get here. Do you agree?”

“I couldn’t agree more. I’ll work the employment paper, negotiate salary and we’ll have her on a plane in three days. I’ll let you know when to have her picked up in Albuquerque. We’ve already run most of the pre-employment checks, and they look great.”

“Excellent, Dorothy! Sara, I look forward to you joining our staff. Welcome to the Wormhole Project.”

 

Pacific Ocean Overlook

Los Angeles, Ca.

 

Everything had fallen in place, and Sara was anxious to report to the project site. Her lecture was a huge success and solidified her position on the STL team as one of the premiere theoretical physicists in the company.

She planned to leave the next day, so after her lecture Sara hired a limo to engage in some sightseeing and shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Of course, she did find some new clothes she needed.

At the end of the day, as they headed back to her hotel, she recalled something she had always wanted to do. “Please take me to the ocean. I want to see it,” she said to the holographic chauffer.

“You’ve never seen the Pacific?” he asked, smiling at her in the rear view mirror.

“Only in pictures.”

“My pleasure, miss. I think you’re in for quite a delightful surprise.”

The holographic chauffer pulled the STV out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, and a panoramic view of the ocean came into sight in all its glory. Sara gasped, overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. I‘ve seen images of the Pacific in cyberspace, but no picture compares with the real thing. It’s so magnificent — breathtaking. “Please pull over at the next observation point.”

Sara got out and walked up to the guardrail overlooking the water. The fresh ocean spray blew in from the sea and bathed her face with an invigorating freshness. The beach backed up to steep, jagged cliffs complemented by the lush vegetation growing on them. On the horizon, the ocean disappeared, as though the atmosphere had swallowed it — as if the two had become one. She knew all the statistics of every ocean in the world, but to see the real thing, in person, brought tears to her eyes. The beauty and grandeur of it was almost overwhelming.

Gulls and pelicans gracefully rode the cliff thermals, swooped down, and plunged head first into the water — popping up with a juicy fish in their beaks. It was fun to watch the pelicans flip the fish into the air, and catch it in their bills with one motion. She thrilled at sea otters floating on their backs, cracking abalone open and savoring the delicacy of the shellfish they so loved. Others frolicked in the surf, jumping out of the water as if playing tag. They were perhaps her favorite. So free and so graceful, she thought.

Huge waves rolled onto the shore, crashing with a thunder, only to return to their source to repeat an endless dance with the beach. Surfboarders rode the waves in, some guiding their boards through the tunnels, popping out just before the waves broke. Others, not so skilled, fell as the waves got the best of the mere humans that would dare challenge them.

I would sure like to try surfing someday. It looks like so much fun.

Sailboats, their sails filled with the onshore winds, tacked back and forth, as they effortlessly navigated across the water, employing the wind as their only means of locomotion, going where they pleased, without any sound.

It was getting late, and the sun rode low in the sky, lighting up the heavens with a breathtaking array of red, pink, and blue colors, accentuated with fluffy cumulus clouds. Sara lingered and savored the beauty of the moment. As the sun slowly sank into the depths of the blue Pacific, an explosion of yellowish light shot out vertically and horizontally into the sky, announcing the end of the day. A flock of pelicans gracefully accentuated the twilight’s sky as they headed to their chosen location to spend the night.

She gazed with love and admiration at this fragile but beautiful planet she now called home. Sara felt like she finally belonged, as if she was at one with the physical world — a new child of Earth.

Chapter 48

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Sara arrived at STL two days later. She was excited to start her new life and finally meet her friends face-to-face. The security guard gave her a new badge and checked her in.

“Dr. Stevens, would you like me to escort you to Dr. Anthony’s office?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She noticed familiar names on the office doors as they walked down the hallway of the second floor. She noted that the furnishings in the offices were much nicer than the ones at NSTA. When they arrived at Marc’s office, he was leaning back in his chair reading his Qtab and drinking a cup of coffee. The guard announced her.

Marc arose with a big smile plastered across his face. “Sara, welcome to STL. Please sit down and let’s chat a bit. Would you like a coffee or something?”

“No, thank you.”

“Well, I need quite a few cups every day to get my buzz. How was your flight and how do you like your quarters?”

“My flight was fun, and my quarters are excellent. I think I’ll like it here very much.”

“Excellent,” Marc said. “I’ve read your resume and reviewed your PhD and Master’s thesis. I don’t mind saying, I enjoyed them both.”

“Thank you. By the way, the project briefing you sent me was thorough and very interesting. I do have some ideas I think will be useful, including some slight modifications to the gravitational field equation implementations.”

“Interesting you should mention it. I’ve been thinking about your new assignment. I’d like you to work with Daniel Forrester, Scott Kimberly, and Tarnak Zontal to review our relativistic field equation algorithms, and our stochastic data base implementations We’ve taken two flights to other star systems, so we know the design’s solid. However, we want to make some improvements, and I’m sure you can help us. I think you’ll like the guys. By the way, Tarnak is from the planet Kandar. His government has assigned him to work with us.”

“Is he really an alien?”

“Yes, he’s from the planet Kandar.”

“How exciting. I can’t wait to meet him. Guess we’re not alone in the universe after all.”

Marc smiled, turned off his Qtab, stored it in his desk drawer, and stood. “Shall we journey down to the MCC?”

Sara’s heart fluttered as they left Marc’s office. She had never experienced butterflies before and not only liked, but also welcomed the feeling and sensations other physical beings experienced. She had been very careful as to the emotional subroutines she chose in her original design, and tried to ensure they had high correlation with real world experiences.

As they walked down the hallway, Marc pointed out her office. It already had her name on the wall adjacent to the entrance: Dr. Sara Stevens. It was very much to her liking, and next to Andrew and Teri’s offices. She had to stifle a giggle of delight.

 

Scott Kimberly and Tarnak sat at the relativistic console running code checks and simulations. Mark spoke first. “Gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Dr. Sara Stevens. She’s our newest acquisition for the project. I’ve assigned her to work with you on the relativistic algorithms and data base implementations we discussed.”

Scott stood and extended his hand with a warm smile. “Dr. Stevens, welcome to our project. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“And I you. I feel like I already know you. I’ve read much of your work in Theoretical Physics. You have made many contributions to your field.” If he only knew, she thought.

“Thank you,” Scott replied, as Tarnak stood and shook her hand. “Welcome to the project. I’ve been looking forward to working with you.”

Sara couldn’t help smiling when she shook Tarnak’s hand. “It’s an honor to meet you. When we get some time I’d like to hear about your home?”

“It will be my pleasure. Let’s all have lunch as soon as you get settled in.”

After the introductions were completed, Marc excused himself and went back to his office to finish the weekly reports, leaving the three of them to get better acquainted. It didn’t take long before they were very impressed with Sara. Her genius was quite evident.

 

Andrew and Daniel returned from Washington late afternoon. They walked into the elevator and pushed the button for the MCC level.

“Have you heard anything from Kala? Seems like a long time since she’s been in the MCC,” Daniel asked

“I don’t know what happened. Three weeks ago, she disappeared. She hasn’t made any attempt to contact me, my mom, or Scooter. I think my mom’s about to have a nervous breakdown. She can’t sleep and has exhausted every diagnostic technique trying to find her. She broke down and cried when I talked to her last night. She loved Kala like a natural-born daughter. I don’t know what to do next, but I’m not going to give up.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help please let me know. I really like Kala. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, she saved our butts several times.”

 

They noticed a new person working besides Scott and Tarnak.

“She must be our new lady physicist Marc told us about, Andrew. Let’s go meet her.”

“Hey, guys welcome back,” Scott said. “How was the weather in Washington?”

“Not bad,” Andrew replied. “Who’s the new victim?”

Kimberly laughed. “Let me introduce you.”

Sara rose and turned around. Her pulse raced as she gazed at Andrew. When he shook her hand, she trembled. She had wanted to touch her big brother all her life and now she had. She fought her emotions so she wouldn’t appear to babble or act silly.

“It’s my pleasure to meet you both. I’m happy to have the opportunity of working with all of you. It’s long been one of my major goals to work on this project.”

“Welcome to the team,” Andrew said. “If there’s anything you need, please let me know. I’d like to visit longer, but I have to brief Marc on our trip. See you later. I hope you like it here, Sara.”

She was disappointed that Andrew left so soon.

“By the way, Sara, my fiancée Michelle will be here tomorrow for lunch. Would you like to join us?”

“Yes, Daniel, very much, thanks.”

What a delight it will be to meet Michelle in person, she thought. I think it’s going to be so much fun. She’s such a hoot.

 

“Have you heard from Bill Mitchel?” Andrew asked as he entered Marc’s office.

“Yes, he told me about your visit,” Marc said. “Very disturbing news. We have a real mess on our hands. If the MOA gets their weapon operational, it’s only a matter of time before they attack the United States.”

“You’re right. The President directed us to refocus our team and come up with a counter weapon strategy as fast as possible. This is our top priority.”

“A black hole’s a terrible weapon. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a B-grade horror movie we were in,” Marc said. “Damn, when are we going to get a friggin’ break?”

“Never,” Andrew replied.

“Let’s assign Kimberly, Forrester, and Sara Stevens to our core strategy group. I’d also like to invite Tarnak. We can set up daily brainstorming sessions. Who do you want as the team leader?”

“I want to assume this role.”

“Fine. When are you going to kick it off?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

Marc nodded. “I don’t mind telling you, I’m worried. Not only for myself, but for my family and friends … not to mention our entire country. We’ve never faced anything like this. By the way, we haven’t seen or heard from Kala in some time. The whole team is very upset about it. What happened to her?”

“I don’t know. I think Lars may have done something. I’ve searched every database I could think of and even my mom is involved. We can’t find a trace of her.”

“Well, security thinks we should change the access codes to the system in case some foreign entity hacked her code.”

“I agree.”

 

Sara went back to her quarters at the end of the day. She liked her new digs. It was so different from cyberspace. She didn’t need sleep, but got ready for bed and lay down. She enjoyed the quiet time to think, mostly about relationships and emotions, which still mystified her. She still wasn’t sure how to deal with Andrew and Carle Anne. She so missed the daily conversations with her mom. It had been a thrill to finally touch her big brother and anticipate a time when she could actually touch and hug Carle Anne — her mother. Something she wanted and needed more than anything else.

 

Sara accompanied Daniel and Michelle to lunch. The two girls chatted and interacted as though they had known each other for a long time. It’s amazing how quickly they seemed to hit it off, Daniel thought.

The cafeteria was crowded. Once they found a table and ordered their meals, Michelle smiled and said, “Sara, a couple of girls and I are going into Albuquerque this weekend to do a bit of shopping and tour the art galleries. Would you like to go with us?”

“Of course. I could use some new clothes, and I’d love to tour the galleries. It’ll be a blast.”

“Hey, girl, we’ve got a date. I’ll let you know the time and other details.”

Daniel projected an amazed and hurt look and said, “I’m not invited?”

Michelle gave him a sly grin. “Dude, this is a girl only deal. You guys will just have to sit home, watch football, drink beer, burp and fart, or do something else guys like to do when we girls aren’t around to supervise you.”

Daniel tried not to laugh, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved Michelle’s quick wit.

“Has anyone heard about Teri?” Sara asked. “Scott told me about the incident with Lars.”

“Andrew said she plans to return to work within a few days,” Michelle said.

“I can’t wait to meet her. I’ve heard so many good things about her.”

“You’ll like Teri, everyone does,” Michelle said. “She’s one of my best friends.”

 

After escorting Sara back to the MCC, Daniel turned to Michelle and said, “Sara seems strangely familiar to me. There’s something about her, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“I agree. I feel like I‘ve known her for a long time. It’s weird, but she reminds me of Kala. I know one thing for sure, the two of us are going to be very good friends,” Michelle said.

“You know, I feel the same way. Their personalities do seem similar. She’s also very likable and quite pretty,” Daniel said. “I think she’s going to be a good friend to all of us, and a very valuable teammate. Scott said she’s a genuine genius. From what I’ve seen, he’s correct. She is unbelievably smart.”

 

Sara sat at her workstation thinking about the upcoming visit to Albuquerque and her new friends in general. It’s amazing how important relationships and acceptance by others has become. The emotional interaction that goes with it is hard to deal with, and at times confusing. It defies logic and I don’t understand it, but perhaps in time I will. I do love it though. I wonder what I should say if Andrew mentions Kala to me. I’m still not sure what humor’s all about. I need to study emotion further and incorporate it in my emotional subroutines. It sure seems to be an important part of interpersonal relationships.

Chapter 49

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

It had been three months since Teri and the Grim Reaper were face-to-face. Her recovery from the shooting was slow and tortuous. In actuality, the mental aspect seemed far more difficult than the physical. She did not want to go back to STL, but that was the only way she could recover from the emotional scars the incident imprinted on her brain.

When she approached the STL elevator, perspiration popped out, and her body trembled. Teri was almost too terrified to push the button. She wanted to leave this place; run away as fast as she could. Teri fought to control her anxiety as she entered the elevator. She selected level six, the MCC. The closing of the door made her feel like someone had just slammed the lid on her coffin.

Her anxiety built as the elevator descended towards the MCC. At level five, her panic peaked and she pushed the stop button. Trembling too bad to stand by herself, she leaned against the wall to keep her knees from buckling.

Past events flooded her mind. Everything came back so vividly: the attempted murder in Albuquerque; the wormhole stability issue; the sabotaged flights and the deaths; and the shooting in Marc’s office. Her knees felt weak, and she started to hyperventilate. To make matters worse, her stomach threatened to yield its contents to the elevator floor. Her instincts screamed at her to leave, to get as far away from this place as possible; however, she knew she had to face her demons. I can’t let this beat me or I’ll never be able to make it back. Her emotions had swelled to the breaking point, and she struggled to prevent herself from crying.

She took a deep breath, regained her resolve, and hit the go button. The ride to the next floor was long and emotionally trying. When the elevator door opened, she steadied herself and walked out. Her first reaction was to see if Lars was in the room. She could almost feel the bullets ripping into her chest.

Daniel saw her leave the elevator and hurried over to hug her. “Teri, it’s so good to see you. How are you feeling? We’ve missed you.”

“I’m okay, Daniel, but I’m still a bit weak and nervous. Where’s Andrew?”

“In Marc’s office.”

Everyone stopped work and gathered around to welcome her back. Being with her friends and teammates comforted her — made her feel more secure. It felt good to be back. As her anxiety subsided, she knew she had made the right decision. This was where she belonged.

“Teri, we have a new member of our staff,” Daniel said. “She’s sitting at the relativistic console. Come on, and I’ll introduce you.”

“Sara, take a break and meet someone,” Daniel said.

She turned in her chair and rose immediately. Before Daniel could speak, Sara extended her hand. “Dr. Martin, I’ve heard so many good things about you. It’s my pleasure to finally meet you. I’m so happy you’re well and able to resume work.”

“Thank you. I’m pleased to meet you also. Call me Teri, please. Welcome to the project. Perhaps Michelle and I could have lunch with you today after I get settled in?”

“I’d like it very much. By the way, several of us girls have planned a shopping trip to Albuquerque this weekend — shopping, food, art galleries and other fun stuff. Would you like to join us?”

“I’d love to. Perhaps we can talk about it some more at lunch. Welcome to STL.”

“Thank you,” she replied.

“Guys, I have to go upstairs and check in. I’ll see you later. I’m so glad to be back with my friends.” She was anxious to see Andrew. Being with the team made her feel good and gave her more confidence about herself. I’m going to be all right, she thought. Sara seems like such a lovely person. Funny though, there’s something vaguely familiar about her. It’s almost like I’ve met her before.

Chapter 50

 

Starship Galaxy 10

Wormhole Conduit EXC-14

 

The Galaxy 10 emerged from wormhole conduit EXC-14 and approached Earth’s solar system. The Science Officer, Commander Oshawa, was conducting a normal sensor analysis. Per standard operating procedure, he ran a routine scan on the sun. The data alarmed him.

“Captain Kahn, please come to the science laboratory immediately. I have something to show you.”

“Right away, Commander.”

Captain Kahn entered the laboratory and asked, “What’s the problem, Commander?”

“Something has altered the plasma wells on Earth’s sun and broken them into small pieces.”

“How do you know this?”

“I’ve run a correlation analysis on sunspot population against our data base. The analysis shows the plasma well population is about a thousand times what it should be at this point in the solar cycle.”

“What difference does it make? Smaller plasma wells shouldn’t cause much of an issue. Should they?”

“Ordinarily not. In this case, the coronal loops have a helix structure storing as much potential energy in the small wells as the larger ones. Instead of a few big spots, and their associated corona loops, we now have a thousand smaller wells, each with a corona loop packed with enormous amounts of stored energy.”

The captain rubbed her hand across the back of her neck and pondered what Oshawa was saying. “Go on, Commander. Have you run a simulation?”

“Yes.” Oshawa mentally pulled up the simulation routine, which graphically demonstrated the dynamics of the sunspot migrations on the main holographic display, including measured data on the predicted solar storm’s magnitude and direction.

“Within fifteen years, the plasma wells will converge on the sun’s equator, and the Earth will experience a solar storm like no other in history. If the simulation is correct, this storm will blow the Earth’s atmosphere off and destroy all life.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Captain, who or what could have done such a thing? I don’t know of any physical process that could have caused this.”

“I don’t know, Commander. Run a complete data analysis to validate your findings and verify your timeline. How long do you think this will take?”

“About two days.”

“Very well, let me know when you’re finished. I want to exit the solar system and reactivate the conduit so we can send our findings back to Kandar for conformation. In the meantime, I’ll notify the Earth ambassador and let him know we’ll be a few days late getting his people back.”

“What are you going to tell him, Captain?”

“I’ll tell him we’ve taken some data we’re concerned about and need to send it back to Kandar for confirmation before we share it. We can’t reveal this until we’re completely certain. If we’re wrong, it could hurt our relations with Earth and damage our credibility. No reflection on you, but we need full scientific validation from our scientists on Kandar.”

“I fully agree.”

“Good. I’ll inform our passengers of the delay.”

The captain walked off wondering how the governments of Earth would react to this horrid report. Will they think we’re trying to deceive them somehow? They might think we caused the problem. I need validation and guidance from the Kandar leadership before we go any further.

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

A black hole counter weapon technology had eluded Andrew and his team. So far, their attempts to come up with a rapidly implementable approach were unsuccessful. Their ideas required too much development time and time was their enemy. Andrew sat in his office going over his project reports, trying to figure out where to go next, when Tarnak walked in and sat down.

“You look worried, Tarnak.”

“I am. Our starship, Galaxy 10, was bringing four exchange scientists back to Earth. When they entered the solar system, they ran normal sensor tests and the result was disturbing.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Something has affected your sun and, as a result, in fifteen years Earth will suffer a severe solar storm. It will make the perfect solar storm of 1859 look like a mild summer breeze. Our data and extensive simulations show this storm will be so powerful, it will blow Earth’s atmosphere off and kill every living thing.”

“What!” Andrew sat up straight, very befuddled. “Are you serious?”

Tarnak slumped back in his chair. “There’s no doubt. The greatest scientists on our planet have confirmed the data and simulations. I’ve downloaded the report to your Qtab. We’re not sure when it happened, but we are convinced our analyses and conclusions are correct.”

Andrew’s mind whirled. “Why tell me? This a high-level government issue.”

“Our leadership has informed the President of the United Sates and presented him and his advisors with the data. The president’s scientific advisor is having the data examined by your solar scientists. I’m afraid they don’t have the sensor technology or the simulation technology they need to confirm it. We need your team’s help to convince the government the problem’s real.”

Andrew thought. What next? Here we are in a life and death struggle with terrorists and now, the sun .“How can we help?”

“We want Scott Kimberly to organize the Earth’s best solar scientists and lead them on an expedition aboard the Galaxy 10 to validate our findings. We’ll brief them on everything they need to know about the sensors and let them run the tests for themselves so they can understand the seriousness of the situation.”

“I have to inform Bill Mitchel and Secretary Robinette. Scott’s an important part of our efforts to develop a counter weapon technology.”

“Survival of all life on Earth depends on what you do now. Our analyses and tests are accurate to within 99.999 percent. It’s going to happen as we say.”

“I understand the urgency. One final question. Why Scott Kimberly?”

“Scott’s known all over the international physics community and well respected by his peers. He should be able to recruit your best solar scientists to participate. Further, he would be the ideal spokesperson to deliver the message to the UN. A professor with his international status, and not a politician or military person, might be listened to.”

“Okay, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. I can’t believe this.” We needed something else to worry about, He thought.

 

Andrew sent the Kandar report to Scott and called him a couple of hours later to follow up.

“I got your message. What kind of joke are you pulling? This whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t know of any physical phenomena in the universe capable of causing such a problem. You sure this isn’t bullshit. I think you and Daniel are trying to screw with my head.”

“It’s no joke. The Kandarians are dead serious about it. They’ve had their best scientists confirm it. It’s real, and it’s why I’m calling.”

“Sounds like an ah-shit thing to me, Andrew. Well go ahead and lay it on me. I always was a sucker for punishment. I’m all ears.”

Andrew shook his head in amusement and cleared his throat. “I’ve talked to Bill Mitchel about what I’m going to ask you and he supports it. He’s already discussed this with Secretary Robinette and the National Security Advisors.”

“Am I being arrested or something? The two dollar deduction on my income tax for golf tees shouldn’t have caused this type of commotion,” Scott joked.

Andrew laughed. “I was informed by the CIA that one of their moles found out that an MOA scientist directed their black hole system at the sun and somehow caused the sunspot problem — it’s not a natural phenomenon. He told the mole the scientist involved thought he could break sunspots into smaller ones and control the weather. It was stupidity of the highest degree. Anyway — as the report indicates — we have a big problem.”

“What do you guys want me to do? I think I see a big deal coming, and it makes me nervous as hell.”

“The Kandarians, the president’s National Security Advisor, and scientific advisors want you to head up a team of solar scientists. The team will go into space with the Kandarians and verify their conclusions. The president wants us to confirm the issue before he goes to the UN with it. You’ll also be asked to go with him to present your findings.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” Scott replied.

“We have a lot of confidence in you. You’re known and respected in the international physics community, and other scientists will participate if they know you’re heading it up.”

Scott paused for a moment before he answered. “Okay, I’m going to be sorry, but what’s the scoop?”

“Thanks, we knew we could count on you.”

“If I had known this when you were at Tech, I would have figured how to flunk your and Daniel’s asses out. You two have really turned my life upside down. I should have told you wormholes wouldn’t work. Guess I never knew when to keep my big mouth shut.”

Andrew laughed. It felt good to let off some stress. “You need to create a list of the top solar physicists. Send out an invitation, and tell them you’re heading up a scientific investigation of the sun in cooperation with our friends from the planet Kandar. If they choose to participate, they’ll be aboard a Kandarian spacecraft for the duration of the investigation. Funding is no issue.”

“Okay I’ll do it, in spite of my better judgment. I need to meet with Tarnak first, and I want access to the sensor specifications and the simulation and modeling programs they use. Once I study those, I’ll need to go over the data with them. Also, I want complete access to the Earth’s orbiting sun telescopes to augment their sensors.”

“I’ve already arranged it. There won’t be any issues with time slots. What else?”

“I want Sara to review their models and give me her inputs.”

“I’ll get her on it right away.”

“When I send out the invitations, I’m going to ask the investigators to suggest the best solar modeling and simulation programs, and we’ll take the best ones with us. I‘ll need Tarnak’s help make sure our models will run on their systems. Our guys won’t believe the Kandarian results unless we’re certain our programs aren’t sufficient, and convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, theirs work. Regardless of what we do, some of our people will be suspicious of the results. How do we know they haven’t caused the problem?”

“I assure you, they did not cause this. Is there anything else?”

“I want to go on the Galaxy 10 right away, so I can get familiar with their science laboratory. I’m sure it’s far more advanced than the Orion.”

“Thank you, buddy.”

“It’s my planet too, you know. I want one point of contact. I don’t want to have to wade through a bunch of bureaucratic red tape bullshit if I need something.”

“I’ve been told it will be me.”

“I was hoping it would be.”

“When can you leave? The Kandar shuttle is waiting at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. I suggest you check in with Mitchel at NSTA when you get there. If you need anything, he can be very helpful.”

“I’ll do it. To answer you, I’ll be ready to leave tomorrow night. I’ll contact Sara when I get to the ship.”

“I’ll let Mitchel know. Tarnak will meet you at NSTA. Bill Mitchel said to tell you he wants all of the investigators to assemble at NSTA and leave for the ship at the same time. The DOD will provide transportation to the ship. He’ll arrange it with them as soon as he gets your assembly date.”

“I should have the principle investigator list and invitations ready to go out before I leave today. I’ll make sure you’re copied on all communications. I think everyone will be excited about going into space on an alien starship. By the way, keep me updated on the counter-terrorism effort will you?”

“I will, and good luck, my friend.”

 

Scott called his woman friend, Andy, in Albuquerque. They had planned to play golf on the weekend.

“Hi, Scott, it’s a bit early to call. Getting nervous about our bet?”

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to make our golf date Saturday, something’s come up.”

“What could be more important than our golf game? You got the gout?”

Scott laughed. Andy knew how and when to make light of things. He had been attracted to her at first sight. Her short brown hair and blue eyes contrasted nicely with her golfing tan and trim figure. She sure didn’t look fifty. “I have to fly to Washington, D.C. day after tomorrow.”

“When will you be back? What is going on? This came up so suddenly.”

“I’m not sure of the return date. It could be several weeks.”

“What’s going on?”

“Andy, what I’m going to tell you is a government secret and you can’t disclose it.”

“Scott, you’re scaring me, but go on.”

“I’ve been asked to head up a scientific investigation of the sun. I’m inviting an international group of solar scientists to participate, and we’ll be aboard an alien star ship from the planet Kandar.”

“You’re kidding me. I’ve heard some whoppers when someone wanted to break a date, but this takes the cake — little green men from Mars, and joy riding on an alien starship? You’re not serious.”

“I am. In fact, one of their scientists has been working with us for some time.”

“You never told me. Are they nice? I mean, you always see science fiction movies about aliens who want to conquer the Earth and eat our face or something.”

Scott couldn’t himself from laughing.

“Sorry I sound so skeptical, but aliens? Are you putting me on? What a lame excuse for breaking our date. You broke or something and can’t pay your bets?”

“I know it sounds hokey, but I’m telling you the truth. I can’t tell you much more right now, except this trip is very important. There’s a problem with our sun and all life on Earth is at risk. I’m sorry but I can’t tell you more. It’s highly classified.”

“This really scares me. I have a lot of questions, but I know you’d tell me if you could. Please be careful, and don’t get hurt. Call me when you can. You know I care for you very much, and I do not want anything to happen to you. Besides, you still owe me for our last golf game. You’re running up a pretty good tab, you know.”

“I care for you, too. Don’t worry, I‘ll be back in a few weeks. I think we need to go double or nothing on those bets.”

“You really are a glutton for punishment. Take care of yourself. I’ll miss you.”

Scott sat at this desk thinking about his wife and Andy. His wife would want him to find happiness and not sit around grieving forever. He missed her very much. He would never lose his love for her, but he so needed someone in his life. He hoped the person would be Andy.

Scott knew he could organize the study and pull it off. He was used to working with scientists and knew how to work around their egos and idiosyncrasies.

What if the Kandarians are right and the entire planet faces certain death? That, compounded with a bunch of maniacs who are hell-bent on killing everyone, makes the future look very bleak. Well, we might be able to stop the terrorists, but the sun. What can we do? Where can we go? Moreover, how do you relocate billions of people to another world, even if one exists, in only fifteen years? What about our animal population? The problems and politics are almost insurmountable. The wormhole might possibly be the only salvation for the human race — if we survive to use it.

 

Two days later, Bill Mitchel called. When Andrew answered, Bill gave him the “look” which usually meant something unpleasant was heading his way. Andrew beat him to the punch. “What’s going on?”

Mitchel grinned, and said, “I am the bearer of good news.”

“I’m sure.”

“Kimberly wants you to go with him on the Galaxy. He told me he needs your help.”

“You’re kidding?” He quickly sat up, hoping he had heard wrong. The last thing Andrew wanted was another trip into space. Crap, he must be joking.

“It’s a cakewalk. Just out and back for a few days. I’m sure the scientific lab will be of interest to you.”

Andrew gulped. I guess he’s serious. “You know I’ll go. I’d never refuse to help Scott. When and where?” Oh shit, here we go again. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. I should’ve stayed at Tech. “Has Scott finished all of the prep work?” Andrew asked.

“He told me he has checked out the Galaxy’s scientific lab. He and Sara have validated the Kandarian programs, selected our best solar models, and verified they would run on the Kandarian systems.”

“Well, it looks like he’s done his homework.”

“The Galaxy’s scheduled to pick up the scientific team at Andrews Air Force Base in three days, so you need to fly out as soon as possible. Scott will meet you at the National Spaceport and take you to the ship. I do have concerns about you being gone while we’re working on the counter weapon technology. How’s it going?” Bill reached in his drawer, pulled out his jellybeans, and popped a couple in his mouth.

“We are working on several different approaches but none are firm yet. I’ll have Daniel Forrester and Sara Stevens oversee the effort. They’re more than capable of heading this up. We’re working on several different approaches, but none’s firm yet. Hey, no black beans?”

“I ate ‘em first. Go figure.” Bill laughed as he searched for another in the crumpled bag. Not finding what he wanted, he frowned and said, “Have a good trip, and call me when you return.” He threw another jellybean in his mouth and waved bye as he exited the video call.

I thought the last two trips into space were going to be cakewalks and look what happened. I sure as hell hope this one doesn’t turn out to be another fiasco. At least the mole is not around to give us trouble.

 

 

Chapter 51

 

Reagan National Spaceport

Washington, D.C.

 

Scott Kimberly met Andrew at the National Spaceport exit. “Glad you could make it. We’re going to have a lot of hardheads to contend with. The STV is right over here. We’ll be at the ship in thirty minutes.”

“I admit I’m curious and somewhat excited about working in the Galaxy science laboratory.”

“You have no idea how fantastic their lab is. Wait until you have a direct brain link-up with the computers. It will amaze you!”

“Uh … I’m sure it will, but I’m leery of having machine intelligences roaming around in my head, accessing my thoughts and memories. There’s no telling what they could do to you.”

“Don’t worry. The technology is perfectly safe. I’ve used it. Other than these strange and compelling urges I now have, it had no effect on me.”

Andrew threw a frantic look his way. “What kind of urges?”

Scott paused for a moment before he burst out laughing. “You do adjust after a while,” he said, grinning. “Don’t worry, the effects wear off shortly.”

“You’re not making me feel any better. Have you ever thought about the problems those computers could cause? What if they implanted information in your brain and it wasn’t real? What if they exchanged your memories for ones you never experienced in life? I’ve read articles on experimentation using machine intelligences to reconstruct a person’s mind and change who they were, in effect, their entire persona. It’s a scary concept, Scott.”

Scott gave Andrew a confused stare. “Who is Scott?”

“Not even funny.”

The idea of computers prowling around inside his head disturbed Andrew. He thought of the old sci-fi movies where alien bugs ate their victim’s brains while they ran around screaming and holding their heads, or evil computers taking over their victims mind, turning them into Zombie-like creatures.

I wonder what it feels like to have an alien intelligence roaming around inside your head, riffling through your thoughts. What if they damage my mind? I don’t know about this whole brain link-up thing, Andrew thought.

 

Starship Galaxy 10

 

The Galaxy 10 was impressive. Circular in shape, five hundred meters in diameter, twenty-three decks and a dark matter propulsion system capable of light speed plus — not to mention the telepathic control systems, holographic displays integrated with virtual reality systems, and sensor systems far in advance of Earth technology. His Qtab data sheet indicated the ship had a complement of two hundred and room for up to fifty additional passengers. The captain was Jeanna Kara-Kahn, whom Andrew had been told, was about to be promoted to Admiral. She was purported to be the best and most experienced starship captain in the Kandarian Fleet.

Andrew was pleased to get to his stateroom. He would worry about the computers tomorrow. He fell into his bunk and dropped into a deep sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

At 0700 the next morning, Captain Kara-Kahn gave the command to lift off. The pilot, using a direct brain linkup, entered the flight plan data, activated the antigravity systems, inertial dampers and the ship lifted off and headed into space toward the backside of the sun. The dark energy propulsion system acceleration was so gentle, none of the scientific team even stirred in their bunks.

The ship arrived at the polar orbit point on the backside of the sun two days later — far enough out to avoid capture by the sun’s gravity and to maintain a safe temperature.

 

Starship Galaxy 10

In orbit, backside of the sun

 

Andrew and the scientific party were attending a briefing in the science laboratory by Commander Oshawa to review the upcoming data collection exercise. The commander reviewed the data he had collected on the previous trip, and ran a simulation program that played out on the large holographic display. The simulated sunspot formation and migration patterns clearly demonstrated the development of the perfect storm and the destruction of Earth. The entire scientific party was stunned. No one spoke for minutes after the simulation completed. An announcement broke the silence.

“Commander Oshawa, you may commence testing at your convenience.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Oshawa replied. “Ladies and Gentlemen, our test will start with several orbits around the sun to map and collect data on the surface rotation differentials and measure the magnetic fields associated with the plasma wells. Once this is completed, we’ll use this data to run simulations to validate the plasma well migration and the associated Coronal Mass Eruptions we’ve forecast.”

One scientist spoke up. “Commander, I want to run our own simulation programs first.”

“Fine. Let’s get started. Computer, initiate the plasma well mapping and analysis routines.”

 

“ALL PROGRAM SEQUENCES LOADED. SENSORS AND SYSTEMS ARE CALIBRATED AND READY TO COMMENCE DATA ACQUISITION AND ANALYSIS.”

 

“We normally use direct brain transfer to interact with our computers,” Oshawa said, “but I thought it would be more appropriate if you were able to hear what we’re doing. A little later, we’ll let each of you experience the direct brain link-up telepathic technology. It’s much faster, accurate, and it will amaze you.”

Wonder how I can decline without making myself appear like a wimp, Andrew thought.

Oshawa activated his comm and reported, “Captain, this is Oshawa. We’re ready to initiate the orbital mapping procedures.”

“Very well, Commander. Pilot, take us out of orbit and initiate mapping maneuvers.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Using direct brain link-up, the pilot ordered the computers to take the ship out of its station keeping point to initiate the mapping tasks. The system enabled all bridge personnel to share the mind link-up interactions and results.

The huge holographic display, in the science laboratory, showed the ship’s flight path and geometry of the mapping maneuvers with respect to the sun. The resolution and purity of color made the images appear real.

Each trajectory had a three-dimensional boundary mapped around the required corridors the ship would traverse to ensure they maintained the correct spatial positioning and distance from the sun.

The computers would detect any deviation out of the corridor boundaries. With concurrence from the pilot, they would correct the maneuver and keep the ship in its precise orbital position.

Once the mapping process commenced, the holographic display presented the data compilation and analysis real-time. The sunspot mapping provided the exact location of the plasma wells and the magnetic fields developing around them. The energy storage of the loops was calculated and displayed with associated numerical and graphical data by each well, and also presented a graph to show the energy build-up in the plasma wells versus time.

Andrew was amazed that so much energy could be stored in a system without it exploding. What could possibly enable storage of so much energy in a semi-stable mode? It defies the laws of physics, at least the way I perceive it. There must be parameters or processes going on in those physical systems I’m not aware of.

Data collection was completed at the end of the eighth orbit. “Commander, we have the data we need, so I suggest we start the simulation runs using the Earth models.” Kimberly said.

“Certainly, Doctor.”

The scientific team reviewed the data in detail. Convinced it was a valid analysis, they were anxious to commence the simulation routines. The Earth scientists ran their models first, and as Kimberly predicted, rapidly produced results not physically realizable.

“Andrew, our simulation models have failed,” Dr. Martin Romanski, Andrew’s nemesis from the design review, noted. “Our models aren’t sophisticated enough.”

“I agree,” Andrew replied.

“Gentlemen, the simulations have failed using your models. Dr. Stevens and I have analyzed the physics and mathematics of the Kandarian models with a fine-tooth comb. I’m convinced their approach is correct. I recommend we waste no more time and run the Kandarian programs,” Scott announced.

Dr. Romanski and his colleagues were disappointed but agreement was unanimous.

“Okay, Commander,” Scott said.

“Computer, load simulation program ES 1.24. Use data set A503. Set T sub zero to Earth time 2346.35. Let the solution progress open-ended with a time increment of 30 Earth rotation cycles. Show sun spot migration, corona loop energy build up, and calculate and display CME eruption at maximum energy load versus time.”

 

“WORKING. PROGRAM PARAMETERS LOADED. SIMULATION PROGRAM ES 1.24 RUNNING.”

 

Andrew watched with trepidation as the holographic display mapped the entire surface of the sun. The surface boiled like hot water in a pan. Plasma bubbled up and dropped back into the interior as it cooled. The plasma wells and associate magnetic loops were the most distorted and twisted conglomeration Andrew could have imagined. The simulation routines automated and quantified the sunspot migrations and CME’s as they formed, each annotated with numerical data. Watching the sunspots migrate to the equator and merge in the direction of the Earth fascinated, and intimidated Andrew. Unbelievable amounts of energy was released, resulting in huge CME’s exploding thousands of miles into space, propelling solar wind particles at several hundred thousand miles per hour towards Earth.

The realistic simulation sobered Andrew. Each year the solar storms increased in severity and more and more sunspots migrated to the suns equator. As predicted, at year fifteen, the perfect solar storm occurred.

There was no disputing the results! The end game — a solar storm unlike any ever seen before. The monstrous CME’s resulted in waves of high-energy particles and X-rays hurling towards the Earth. The simulation showed the particle streams bend and severely elongate the Earth’s magnetic field, and strip all traces of the atmosphere from the planet, leaving Earth barren and incapable of supporting life.

This is scary, Andrew thought. “It sure paints a bleak picture doesn’t it, Scott?”

“I wish they were wrong, but they’re not.”

Martin Romanski approached Andrew and Scott, looking like as though he had seen a ghost. “We’ve been through the physics and the mathematics in detail. The arguments are over. I’m convinced, and I will support you in Congress or at the UN. We have a mess on our hands. Thank Goodness the Kandarians alerted us to it. Andrew, I owe you an apology. I know I gave you hell at the design review. The wormhole technology may be humankind’s only salvation.”

Stunned, all Andrew could do was nod politely.

 

A cold chill ran up and down Andrew’s spine as he digested the simulation results. He knew the world would be looking to the wormhole technology to save itself. Transferring and setting up this technology in other countries would be a huge job: not to mention relocating the entire population and animal life to another world. But what world?

Maybe we can pull it off. I’m glad my job is just making sure the technology’s ready for deployment. Someone else will have to oversee the relocation effort. It’s going to be ulcer city. Well, I don’t have to worry. My name won’t even be on the substitute list.

Kimberly interrupted Andrew’s thoughts. “I think everyone is convinced.”

“How can they argue? When are we heading back?” Andrew stood and stretched. “I’m ready to go home.”

“They need about four hours to finish everything up. By the way have you tried the direct brain link-up yet?”

Andrew nearly choked on a swig of coffee. “Damn, I guess I swallowed wrong.” He wiped his shirt off and laughed softly. “I’m nervous about the DBL technology. I don’t think I want an AI program roaming around in my personal thoughts and memories. I’m content to experience it some other time.”

Scott patted Andrew on the back. “I understand. Look, the computers are non-invasive. They only respond to queries directed to them, and they won’t access anything you don’t want them to. The Kandarians have been extremely careful about maintaining their privacy. I’ve read their reports, and they have incorporated enormous safeguards to prevent the computers from violating their private realm of thought. You have to try it.”

“Well … maybe I should. Where’s the link-up?” I sure hope I’m not making a mistake.

Commander Oshawa walked over and handed Andrew the mind-link band. “Slip this on your head, relax, and enjoy the experience. When you’re ready, think about what you want the computers to do, and they will pick up the mental command.”

Andrew cautiously donned the link and adjusted it for comfort. He was somewhat hesitant to proceed — waiting for the intrusive influx of an alien intelligence to pour through his mind. He didn’t feel anything, so he meekly thought to himself.

 

Computer, show me the trajectories and flight through the eight orbits we completed.

 

He held his breath, expecting some force to roll through his head, to scatter his brain or take control of his thoughts. Much to his surprise, the computer appeared as a professionally dressed female standing in front of him. Her image extruded charisma. He couldn’t help but like her. She responded in a pleasant voice.

 

Right away, Andrew. By the way, my name is Sally. It’s nice to be working with you. Please give me a couple of seconds, and I will present the data. Do you want to see it as an immersion holograph?

 

Yes, thank you, Sally.

 

The computer sensed his social preferences and communication style and implemented the interface to his liking and comfort level. After a few seconds, he “saw” a three dimensional view of the sun and the orbits they had completed, along with the quantitative data. It was as if he were immersed or floating inside a large holographic display with full color, data, and other objects at perfect resolution revolving around him. It was virtual reality in its purest form. There was no attachment hardware, only mental interaction. Everything moved as if he were observing it real-time, a dynamic model in surround vision. The surface of the sun appeared natural with its fiery surface bubbling and boiling, polka-dotted with plasma wells. The magnetic fields around the sunspots twisted and distorted as they stored more energy. The display showed the ship moving through the orbital corridors.

Andrew moved, with minimal effort, around and within the image to different positions, to inspect other views and perspectives by thinking. He felt like a child exploring a magnificent experience for the first time, weightless and free to move in any direction or place he desired. To command data, view or see any calculation he wanted simply by thinking it.

The computer software agent, presented to him as a visual manifestation as opposed to a thought only, made the experience as pleasant and normal as talking to another person — only faster. After a while, Sally appeared again.

 

ANDREW is this sufficient or do you want additional data?

 

I would like to see the results of the sunspot simulation, and please give me all supporting quantitative data.

 

One moment please.

 

She smiled, turned, and accessed the information from a virtual reality graphic interface she was using. The interface agent matched the data transfer with his mental processing speeds, so nothing appeared abrupt to him. It was as if he were watching the event develop with him in the middle of it. Every time he wanted a different view or perspective he thought it, and Sally provided him with the exact mental image he wanted.

He ran the simulations through various perspectives and called up data supporting the conclusions they had made. When he wanted, he could request the mathematics and follow the equations and calculations as if he were writing them himself.

The final picture he viewed was disturbing. The plasma well magnetic fields appeared like gnarled knots and wound so tight with energy they were bursting at the seams.

 

Sally, please provide me with the physics and mathematical calculations of the magnetic field energy storage.

 

IT’s my pleasure, Andrew. It will only take a moment.

 

Andrew reviewed the data with amazement. I wouldn’t have thought of using their approach to the analysis. There are particles involved. I would not have believed it. The particles are the energy carriers as they interact with the magnetic field and Coronial loops. It explains everything.

The final simulation presented the most horrible CME’s one could imagine. The intense plasma streams erupted, flying past him at thousands of miles per hour. Without doubt, the Kandarian conclusions were correct. He finally decided he didn’t want to see anymore.

Sally appeared.

 

Is there anything else I can do for you, Andrew? Would you like to see more?

 

No thank you, Sally. Please disconnect.

 

Very well, I enjoyed meeting you. I hope to see you again soon.

 

Andrew seamlessly returned to using his own sensors. Funny, it seemed no different from the direct brain linkage experience.

“Well, Andrew, what did you think about the DBL technology?” Scott asked.

“It was phenomenal. Like talking to another person. I didn’t get the impression everything was happening inside my head. It seemed natural, and the interface agent took on an appealing persona. I’m flabbergasted.”

“Isn’t it amazing how they can analyze your communication style and personality without being overly invasive?”

“Yeah. It was like having a supercomputer in my head, ready to work in a seamless manner with my mind at an instant’s notice. The mental processing speeds and capabilities were staggering.”

“I told you it wouldn’t invade your personal thoughts.”

“I guess you have to experience it yourself. It something I’ll never forget.”

“I agree,” Scott replied. “Let’s go eat.”

 

Scott and Andrew were packing up getting ready to shuttle down to Earth.

“I think we’re done here. All of the people I’ve talked to are ready to cooperate when we get back. I hope we’ve got most of the bullshit behind us.”

“I think the bullshit is just getting started,” Andrew replied. “I don’t know about you, Scott, but I’m ready to go home. Enjoy your meeting at the UN. I’ll be anxious to hear about the results.”

“I think I’d rather have a root canal than face those characters. I hope they don’t bring any tomatoes with them like they did in the old vaudeville days. Oh, well their insults will be just as bad.”

“Just remember to duck. Good luck, my friend. I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Thanks, I’ll need it. Tell Teri I said hello.”

“I will.”

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

An ISA space shuttle ferried Scott and Andrew from the low earth docking facility back to STL. The sleek craft touched down on the landing pad close to the STL terminal building. Andy and Teri waited anxiously for their men at the bottom of the stairway. Andrew couldn’t wait for the shuttle to set down so he could hug Teri.

 

The doorway opened and Andrew and Scott emerged and descended to the bottom. Teri wrapped herself around Andrew so tight he almost lost his breath. The intense kiss made him dizzy.

“I’m so happy to have you home,” Teri said. “I love you.”

“I love you too, with all my heart.”

He kissed her again, secure in the warmth of her embrace. Both couples bid each other a temporary farewell, and left to be alone and enjoy some time together.

Scooter met Andrew and Teri as they walked into Andrew’s quarters.

“I’m sure glad to see you, Andrew. Rough trip huh? Would you two like something to eat and drink?”

“Too tough. Some food and drink sounds good,” Andrew said.

After Scoter brought the drinks, Teri kissed Andrew passionately. A few drinks later, she smiled. “Andrew, I want to stay with you tonight. I need to be with you.”

Teri’s heart was pounding and she trembled with excitement. She took a deep breath, rose up, and pulled Andrew to his feet. “Scooter, please wait dinner. Andrew and I have something to do and we do not want to be disturbed. Maybe all night.”

“Okay, Teri.”

 

Andrew waited for Scott to arrive at the office so he could find out about the UN meeting. He thought about the challenges his team had faced, including the viruses, and now terrorists running around threatening to kill everyone with their black hole weapon system. As serious as it was, it paled compared to the threat the entire Earth faced from the sun. Scott walked in and interrupted his thinking.

“Good morning Andrew.”

“Glad to see you made it back in one piece. How did the meeting at the UN go?”

“As you might expect. The entire Middle Eastern delegations accused us of lying and stormed out of the building, in mass. The rest were terrified and hoping for some miracle to save them. Stone and Ambassador Kronow informed them they proposed to relocate everyone to a planet called Terra using wormhole technology. He also promised them the U.S. would provide a technology team to set the wormhole technology up in their countries to support the relocation process to Terra. I think they were satisfied.”

“So how is Andy?” Andrew asked.

“She’s great. In fact I asked her to marry me and she accepted.”

“Congratulations. Have you set a date yet?”

“No, but if I don’t hurry up and marry her, she’ll wipe out my bank account. No one has ever beaten me so bad playing golf before.”

“Not just an off days in the links, huh?”

“I wish. She just keeps kicking my butt.”

 

Andrew was growing weary. The last six years seemed like a roller coaster ride, threatening to derail them at every turn. Somehow, they managed to hang on, overcome, and wiggle out of some difficult and dangerous situations. Now, it seemed the future for humankind was not clear.

Andrew reflected on his and Teri’s relationship. He so wanted to marry Teri, but wasn’t sure there was a future for them or anyone else. Their world was ending and nothing was certain going forward. He wanted a family, but marriage at this point seemed futile; however, maybe a few years of happiness was better than nothing. But what about children, he wondered. He wanted a family of his own but how could he make sure of their safety and provide them with a future?

 

Chapter 52

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley, Pakistan

 

Yasaid arrived at the weapon facility early morning. He was excited to get a status update and witness their new weapon in operation. The war was about to start. The infidel dogs and all of their enemies would bow at their feet and beg for mercy. Taking on the superpowers made him nervous, but if the sheik’s strategy were correct, they too would whimper and fall.

Olmid met him at the front gate with a utility cart to take him to the main control room.

“Good to see you again,” Olmid said with a smile. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“I’ve missed you too, old friend. Do you like being Head of Security?”

“Yes, although it does get a bit lonely out here in the valley, away from my many lady friends.”

“Perhaps I can arrange a visit to Anwar for you.”

“Sounds like a great idea,” he replied. “I’d appreciate it very much.”

 

“I read a report that the SWG attacked the facility two weeks ago. Fill me in.”

“They did, but we killed every one of the dogs before they could shoot their way into the facility. General Sone let their leader and twenty of his pig followers enter the main tunnel and then killed them by releasing poison gas through the air system to the tunnel.”

“I understand he sent Sheik Aktar Zaman a present after it was all over.”

“Sone chopped off five of their heads, put them in a crate, and shipped it to Zaman with a love note from him. I can only imagine the sheik’s face when he read the note.”

Olmid let Yasaid out when they arrived at the control room entrance,

“I’ll see you later. I have to make sure no one followed. It is great to see you again. May Allah be with you.”

 

Yasaid took the elevator to the general’s office, where he met with Sone and Dr. Lieu.

“Gentlemen, the sheik is ready to launch our first attack. What is your status?”

The general looked at Lieu, “Why don’t you answer him.”

“The black hole weapon system is fully operational. We’re ready to commence operations and attack as soon as the sheik gives the order.”

“Excellent. General, if you will, please link us with the sheik. You know the number.”

The general entered the codes to Yasaid’s home in Anwar. After a few rings, the sheik appeared on the communication display dressed in his best ceremonial robes.

“Gentlemen, are we ready to launch an attack?”

The general replied. “The system is fully operational, Your Grace, and we can attack as soon as you give the order.”

The sheik made no attempt to hide his feelings. “I’m very delighted. Our intelligence tells us the SWG has called a secret meeting in Beirut to discuss their failed attack and plan additional moves against us. I think this is the precise time to strike, and it’s a good test for our new weapon. Most top SWG leaders will be in Beirut. Let’s plan to attack at 6 p.m. tomorrow night.”

“Why Beirut? What about Mogadishu? It’s their secondary hub,” Yasaid questioned.

“The Beirut attack will send a message to the entire world. Once this strike has occurred, we will be able to assess the impact.”

“Why not finish them immediately?”

“Two reasons. First, a delay will increase the fear of our weapon. Second, the SWG will regroup in Mogadishu within a day or two, so a second, delayed strike will finish them. This attack will put the final nail in their coffins.”

“It sounds like an excellent plan, Your Grace. We destroy our worst enemies and announce our power to the world,” the general said.

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

The President of the United States, Taylor Ulysses Stone, sat at his desk reviewing his daily schedule when his private video link rang. His National Security Advisor, Dr. Ian Romanoff, was on the line. “Mr. President, I have some strange and disconcerting news.”

His National Security Advisor was normally very calm, but seemed nervous and confused — quite strange behavior, the president thought. “What is it, Ian?”

“Mr. President, when I reviewed my morning security brief, the priority topic was Mogadishu.”

“Get to the point,” the president noted, pushing his coffee aside.

“Sir, Mogadishu, like Beirut, has disappeared from the face of the Earth. It no longer exists. We have run extensive satellite recon and nothing’s there … no buildings, no vehicles, no people … nothing! We don’t know what’s happened.”

“This makes no sense,” Stone remarked. “Was there an attack or not? Damn it, man, something this disastrous could only have been the result of an antimatter, photon, or nuclear strike.”

“Sir, we can’t find any evidence of radiation or bomb damage. It wasn’t a natural phenomenon or an RFG strike, either. I can’t explain it. The CIA reports the attacks eliminated most of the SWG organization. They believe the MOA was behind it.”

“Two major cities and their entire populations have disappeared off the face of the Earth. I want information, and I want it now,” the president yelled. “Send me a brief, and assemble the National Security Team and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for an emergency meeting. Tell them I do not want to hear any more of this I do not know shit. I’ll contact key heads of state to see if they have any intelligence. I’m sure this will be on the front page of every newspaper in the world before the day’s over. I assure you, now that a second catastrophe has occurred; the media will bombard us. We have to act fast. The entire country is going to be in an uproar, and they will expect us to give them some answers. So get on it!”

“Right away, sir.”

 

Early that afternoon, the president met with his advisors, including Secretary Robinette. “Felix, if not nuclear, antimatter or a natural disaster, what could cause such a calamitous event?” The president asked. “It’s strange there aren’t any ruins or debris anywhere. It doesn’t make sense. It’s as if these places never existed. What’s going on? I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but I’m nervous as hell about this.”

Secretary Robinette rubbed his hand across his mouth. “Mr. President, we think it was a black hole weapon system.

General John Holmes, Joint Chiefs Chairman, interjected. “Both the CIA and DOD agree this was not a conventional nuclear of antimatter attack. It had to be that new MOA weapon we’ve been trying to locate.”

“Is there any defense against it?” The president asked.

“Short of a direct nuclear or antimatter attack, no, Mr. President, and it must be a direct hit,” Ian replied. “I’m certain the design of the facility will enable it to withstand about any type of attack. Further, if we fail to take them out, they’ll retaliate immediately and their counterattack would be disastrous.” Ian wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. “We could mount an invasion if the government of Pakistan agreed, but I don’t think they’ll be happy to have foreign troops on their soil. What’s more, the MOA has an excellent Intel network. If they got wind we were trying to put boots on the ground, they’d attack us and hit D.C. first.”

“Felix, I believe I asked you to have the NSta team to initiate studies of a counter weapon strategy.”

“Yes, sir, I did. They’ve made this their top priority.”

“Do we need additional people? We could get some help from our National Labs.”

“Bringing in more people won’t help. The technology’s very complex. It would take too long to bring them up to speed. Our wormhole team is the only ones in the world who might be able to figure out how to counter this thing.”

“Very well. So far, the attackers have focused on the SWG. This may only be a rival faction dispute. I hope so, but I think they’ll decide to expand their sphere of influence. Felix, contact Mitchel and tell him to make sure his team stays focused and that we get frequent updates on their progress. Report directly to me on this, and keep Dr. Romanoff informed of everything.”

“Yes, Mr. President. I hope this is a regional matter, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

“I think these first strikes were score settling,” the CIA chief added. “The SWG and MOA have been fighting for years. Further, I’d bet a month’s pay the next target will be Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Oganda spent ten years in an Egyptian prison and our intelligence says he’s very bitter. He recently moved the MOA headquarters from Cairo to Anwar. That had to mean something. Not only that, but the Egyptians have imprisoned quite a few of his soldiers.”

“Gentlemen, I want the NSA, military Intel organizations, and the CIA to concentrate on the MOA and get all the intelligence they can and as fast as they can. This is top priority. We have to know where this weapon facility is located before these people decide to attack us. Make sure all of our entire Middle Eastern field agents focus on this. I want a daily meeting starting tomorrow morning. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re on the hit list of these maniacs.”

President Stone was a handsome, middle-aged, black man. An overachiever all his life, he had been a four star general and was the youngest Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. He had served two terms in the senate and as vice president for one term. Before that, he was the national security advisor to a two-term president, and ambassador to the UN. This was the worst situation he had ever experienced, and the consequences to the United Sates frightened him.

 

MOA HQ

Anwar, Pakistan

 

Yasaid called the sheik. “Your Grace, I’m delighted to report SWG has been destroyed.

There may be a few operatives left, but they won’t cause us any more problems. In fact, there’s little left of Beirut or Mogadishu.”

“Wonderful news. I’m pleased we finally got those pigs off our backs — permanently. Now we can focus on more lucrative endeavors. Tell the General and Dr. Lieu I said good work. Now, get back to Anwar immediately.”

The sheik sat at this desk rubbing his palms together, smiling to himself; thinking about the day he would assume his rightful place as Emperor of the World. That day will not be far off. The time has arrived to start the real war and show the infidel dogs who their master is.

Oganda thought of his victory, which brought a smile to his face. If his plan worked, history would record this day as the inception of the Oganda Empire. He looked over at the woman who had shared his bed the night before. She’s so lovely, he thought. And so good in bed. I must reward myself with her again … sometime. She could be a fine acquisition for my harem.

With the SWG out of the way, who would be the next to feel the wrath of his power? It was clear — the Egyptians, and in particular, President Hussein, who had opposed him in Cairo and tried to expel him and the MOA several times. Many of his soldiers still rotted in Egyptian prisons. He himself had sat in a stinking Egyptian prison for ten years. Once he punished them, he would deal with the rest of the world, and appoint himself emperor of the Earth. The Americans would be the icing on the cake.

 

Oganda called Yasaid into his office after he finished breakfast. “Yasaid, the time has come to commence our war.”

“Who will we strike first, Your Highness, and do you want me to go to the Waziristan Valley?”

“No, Yasaid, I want you here at my side. We’re entering the critical phase of our campaign, and we must carefully plan each move. General Sone and Dr. Lieu are more than capable of handling things at the site.”

“Very well, what’s our first step Your Highness?”

The sheik loved the title of, your highness, and relished his next command. He would settle with the last of his enemies and announce to the Middle Eastern world that he alone was to be the supreme leader. With Egypt out of the way, there would be no sharing of intelligence between the Egyptian and Pakistani Intel Services. It would minimize the possibility of an attack on the weapons facility by the Pakistani army. Egypt was a key power in the Middle East and, with them defeated, no one Middle Eastern power would dare defy him — particularly when they saw the catastrophic destruction he levied on that country.

“Call the general and tell him to target Cairo. I want the attack to occur exactly at 9 a.m. tomorrow. We must destroy the central government facilities and all military bases. I have many scores to settle with Hussein, and his flunkies.”

“Yes, Your Highness. I will call Sone immediately. What if a superpower nukes Anwar?”

“Not a worry, Yasaid.”

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

The general was busy reviewing the daily reports when the call came in. “Good morning, Yasaid. How may I help you?”

“I’m calling on behalf of His Highness. The order is … attack Cairo.”

“This pleases me greatly. I was anticipating your call to start the final push. I have no love for Hussein. The system is up and we’re ready. What time does he want to attack?”

“His Highness thinks nine tomorrow morning will have the most impact.”

“It will at that. Thank you for the good news. I’ll start the ball rolling as soon as we conclude our call. I’m delighted about this. I can’t wait to destroy Egypt.”

“Excellent. I’ll let His Highness know.”

Sone was anxious to start the war. Many years before, a heated dispute over the transfer of nuclear technology had broken out between the Korean and Egyptian governments. As head of the Korean nuclear program, he convinced his president to stop the transfer. He alone prevented Egypt from joining the nuclear club. As a result, the Egyptian intelligence and special op forces bombed his home, and killed his family. He had been away at the time and escaped. He never forgot and swore someday to avenge their deaths. He was pleased to think the man he considered responsible for the crimes, would die at his hands. He called Lieu to his office.

Lieu walked in and sat down with his morning tea. “Good morning, General. What can I do for you?”

“Tomorrow at 9 a.m., we attack Cairo.”

Lieu grinned, and raised his teacup to the general. “I’m very pleased. We’re ready. After five thousand years, the Egyptian pigs will no longer have their beloved Cairo.” He laughed and added, “It simply won’t exist.”

Sone grinned, lifted his teacup, and took a sip. “I am anxious to start the attack. I can’t wait to start killing the mangy dogs.”

 

Chapter 53

 

Cairo, Egypt

The President’s Office

 

Egyptian president, Mohab Hussein, was in his office packing his brief case to prepare for a trip to Alexandria for his yearly off-site meeting with his party leaders. He thought about his forty years in politics. His priority was always to make life better for his fellow citizens and enhance Egypt’s influence in world affairs. With elections scheduled in less than a year, it was important to get his party’s re-election strategy in place. As he finished packing, his aide came in.

“Mr. President, the STV will be ready to pick you up in one hour.”

“That will be fine.”

“Do you want some tea and cookies?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Hussein sat back in his chair to think about the upcoming meetings. The last elections were difficult, and the opposition party offered up some excellent candidates with impeccable credentials and good oratory skills. He still needed to accomplish several key goals. This would be his last term of office, and he wanted to cement his place in Egyptian history.

At one, Wasain knocked on his door.

“Come in.”

“Sir, the limo’s here and the vice president’s waiting for you.”

Hussein nodded, picked up his briefcase, finished his tea, and, escorted by his secret service agents, walked out of his office to the waiting limo. There were six STVs in his party, not including the eight police and six heavily armed military escort vehicles. As he got in, his vice president was sipping a tea.

“Good afternoon, Mr. President. Nice day for a drive.”

“Yes, it is.”

Wasain got in behind the president and closed the door. “Are you ready to leave, sir?” he asked.

“Let’s depart.”

The lead STV pulled out and the convoy started the three-hour drive to Alexandria. The president was anxious to attend the meetings and share the vision for his next term with his party officials. He and his vice president would use the time to discuss their re-election strategy and goals for their next and final term. His dream was to see his name held in the same esteem as Sadat and other beloved Egyptian leaders.

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

General Sone walked into the control room at 8:30 a.m. the next morning — excited that they were finally going to start the real war. It bustled with activity as Lieu readied the system for the attack. Dr. Sinbad Ishmael, Lieu’s lieutenant, sat at the system control console, running through the final diagnostic checks.

“Dr. Ishmael, how are the checks looking?”

“Very good. We’re ready to go, Doctor.”

Sone walked up to them. “Can we start the attack as planned?”

“Yes, General. We’ll initiate the final nav and time coordinate download in about twenty minutes, and activate the field and matter synthesizers. We’ve completely automated the weapon initiation sequences, so it’ll be started from the main control console.”

“I’ve waited many years for this, and I’m impatient to strike. But we must wait until nine, as the sheik ordered.” The general stroked the handle of his razor-sharp sword, and thought of all the heads he had cut off with it. He smiled at the thought.

Lieu checked the time. At 8:50 a.m., he gave the order. “Commence the final coordinate and time download from the WNS satellites.”

“Ready, sir,” Sinbad replied. “Initiating design simulation.”

The computer announced:

 

“DESIGN SIMULATION COMPLETE. ALL TARGETING COORDINATES VALIDATED. DATA TRANSFER IN PROCESS.”

 

At 8:55 a.m., the computer announced:

 

“FIELD AND MATTER SYNTHESIZERS ON–LINE. DATA TRANSFER COMPLETE. WEAPON SYSTEM IS STABLE.”

 

The fifteen-foot-high by twenty-foot-long world 3D targeting map, located at the front of the facility, displayed a flat Earth graphic with targeting coordinates and projected paths for the black hole; Cairo was the bull’s eye. To the right of the targeting map was a fifteen-by-fifteen foot satellite reconnaissance display used to observe the results of the attacks.

“Patch in reconnaissance satellites RC1 and RC4 on screen three,” the general ordered. “I want to monitor the city during the attack. Give me mid-range magnification. I want to watch the dogs die. This should be quite entertaining.”

The satellites presented a detailed, high-resolution image showing downtown Cairo. The streets were packed with people and vehicles of all sorts — a typical busy day in a city that had existed for thousands of years.

Sone was impatient to issue the attack order. He harbored a bitter resentment towards Egypt. He nodded approval, and Lieu gave the order. “Computer, direct the back hole to target.”

 

“BLACK HOLE ACTIVATED. TARGET COORDINATES IN PLACE. ATTACK INITIATED.”

 

The world-targeting map showed the black hole forming in the atmosphere. It was an awesome and ominous looking creation. The nav computer started the black hole converging on Cairo. Exactly at nine, a monster appeared out of nowhere and descended on the central part of the city. It looked like a black ring in the sky, with an ominous black center that let nothing escape — not even light.

People scurried back and forth, preoccupied with their normal daily activities, oblivious to the horror preparing to destroy them. Congestion clogged the streets, as usual, at this time of day. A deafening roar, like an F-5 tornado, or a hundred high-speed freight trains, grabbed everyone’s attention.

Traffic jammed as people stared at the abomination hovering over the city. It was beyond human experience and both fascinated and terrified them. The black hole swooped down and destroyed all government facilities, molecule by molecule. The monster devoured every building, STV, and human. People ran and screamed in terror. They fell down, tripped over each other. The monster panicked the population and they ran for their lives. Vehicles crashed as their occupants were too terrified to worry about other STVs. The black hole continued to devastate everything. It sucked the very atoms from people’s bodies, devoured plants, animals and anything else within its purview. It left nothing. As it fed, it became stronger. Its creators knew if it ever broke loose, it would consume the Earth — and them. There was no escape from this demon out of hell itself.

The pitiless beast devoured Cairo. The final insult: consumption of the great pyramids and the Sphinx, grand monuments and testimonies of Egypt’s past glory. Over 20 million people, the buildings, vehicles, animals, landmarks and all government facilities reduced to random molecules and atoms. Only the desert remained. The beast even consumed the waters of the Nile.

Having done their bidding, its masters forced the hideous brute back into its lair. For the first time in several thousand years, no sound emanated from the city once known as Cairo. It was as if the desert had swallowed it.

 

Alexandria, Egypt

 

President Mohab Hussein finished giving the opening address as Wasain barged into the conference room.

“Mr. President, I must speak to you. It is urgent.”

Noticeably irritated, Hussein blurted out, “Why are you interrupting our meeting?”

“We’ve been attacked. Cairo has been destroyed. There is nothing left. I mean nothing, except the desert. No people, vehicles, animals, plants, or buildings! Even the great pyramids and the Sphinx are gone!” He was terrified and it showed in his face.

“Wasain, you’re making no sense. Who would dare commit such an atrocity?” the president yelled.

“I don’t know, sir. There haven’t been any reports. I don’t know any more than I’ve told you.”

The entire room erupted as everyone talked at the same time. Angry shouts filled the room as the assembly tried to understand the great catastrophe and vent their feelings. Key cabinet members were confused and ranted for the need to strike back. However, no one knew who or what attacked them. The room was a mixture of anger and mass confusion.

The president shook badly and ordered his staff to convene in another room. His mind swirling with confusion and trepidation. “Gentlemen, we’re not at war with anyone. I can’t see any reason for an attack against us. Our relations with all of our neighbors are at an all-time high. Wasain, call General Omar and General Wasad and tell them I need to see them right now. Thankfully, they’re in Alexandria.” He raised his arms in the air and prayed, “Allah, help us, your servants … please. Who would do such a thing?”

 

General Omar, the head of the EIA (Egyptian Intelligence Agency), and General Wasad, the Egyptian Military Chief of Staff, were among the president’s most trusted advisors. The two men arrived at the meeting compound within thirty minutes.

Hussein paced the floor, wringing his hands, awaiting his advisors. As the generals walked in, he turned to meet them. “Allah be praised, you were not in Cairo. Do you have any idea what has happened?”

“We were attacked by the same weapon that destroyed Mogadishu and Beirut,” General Omar said. “Our sources tell me it’s a new weapon developed by the Movement of Allah, which is headed by Sheik Oganda. I believe you know him,” General Omar said.

The president nodded. “Where did they get such technology?”

“We believe they stole it from the Americans who were developing wormhole technology to aid in commercial space flight. The MOA have a Dr. Lieu and a large staff of physicists somewhere in the Waziristan Valley in Pakistan, where we think the weapon system is located. We don’t know it’s exact location, but we’re almost certain it’s there. Our sources tell us a General Sone is heading it up. I believe you know him, also?”

“Oh, yes, quite well. He was the one who blocked our nuclear deal with the North Koreans a few years back. I think I’m getting the picture. The sheik and the general are doing a bit of payback. Well, we can play the same game. General Wasad, how long will it take to organize our special forces group to do a HALO drop over the valley, and who would you recommend head it up?”

“Sir, we can be ready in twelve hours, but I don’t recommend we do this. Oganda has spies in our military and they will alert him of any attack plan. Our forces would be dropping into an ambush, and massacred. I also think if the attack fails, he will strike Alexandria and take out all of our remaining naval and special ops commands. We would be reduced to a fourth rate world power, unable to maintain order or mount a token defense.”

The president looked around and everyone agreed. Husain rubbed his forehead and said, “Very well. I understand. Restraint is the best defense right now, even though I don’t like it.”

Wasain, the president’s aid, approached. “I think you and your senior staff should relocate to a small village along the Nile. We don’t know what they might do next.”

“I agree,” the president noted. “See to it.”

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

President Stone was stunned when his National Security Advisor told him about Cairo. He was convinced it was only a matter of time before the MOA expanded their war and directed their weapon towards the West. “Ian, stay here while I call President Hussein.”

“Mister President, this is Taylor Stone. I just learned about the cowardly attack against your country. Are you okay?”

“Yes, thank you. The attack destroyed Cairo: all of our government offices; the police headquarters; military academies; and all of the Army, Navy, and Air Force headquarters. It devastated much of our military. We have no idea how many people lost their lives. Fortunately, we believe we have enough military and intelligence forces left to maintain security.”

“Do you know who attacked you?”

“The MOA. They used a black hole weapon system. The same one they used to take out the SWG in Beirut and Mogadishu.”

“Mohab, do you have any idea where this weapon system’s located?”

“My Chief of Staff thinks it’s somewhere in the Waziristan Valley in Pakistan.”

“Do you need assistance from us?” Stone asked.

“If we’re not attacked again, I think we’ll be fine. It is going to take a lot of rebuilding. I pray someone can stop these maniacs.”

“So do I. Good luck, Mohab.”

The president wanted more information so he called Secretary Robinette. “Felix, this is the President.”

“Good morning, sir.”

“I assume you know about Cairo?”

“I read the brief a few minutes ago. How horrible. If you want my opinion, the MOA are behind this and a black hole weapon was used.”

“That’s what the Egyptians think, and it’s also why I’m calling you. I’m convinced the MOA will turn this weapon on us. What progress is there on a counter weapon?”

“I talked to Dr. Stevenson this morning. He says they’re very close to a solution.”

“Felix, why didn’t we modify our wormhole system?”

“We could, sir, but it would take too long to rewrite the algorithms and modify the system field generators and such. That was one of the first solutions proposed. The time line’s too long. Dr. Stevens says she has an answer that will be quick to implement, but has a bit more mathematical analysis and simulation work before she can complete it.”

“Keep me informed and tell them they must make this happens soon! Stay on their ass and make sure they stay focused. Ian, Call General Holmes and tell him to formulate a backup strike strategy! I want a briefing from him tomorrow morning.”

“Right away, sir.”

 

Chapter 54

 

UN Building

Brussels, Belgium

 

An ultimatum arrived on the desk of UN General Secretary Chang. It was from Sheik Ollie Oganda. Chang’s first reaction was to scoff at the absurd memorandum. As he reflected, it sobered him. The man who signed it was very dangerous and unpredictable.

The Secretary knew Oganda had moles in every country in the world, and his Intel agency was second to none. The man was intelligent, and one of the best strategic thinkers in the world. That, compounded with his insatiable desire for power, made him extremely dangerous. Oganda’s an egomaniac with weapons of mass destruction, and he won’t hesitate to use them. No, this is not a joke, he thought

The message was simple:

 

‘All nations must lay down their arms, defuse all nuclear, photonic and antimatter weapons, and de-arm all military atmospheric strike fighters (ASFs). Dock all ships and submarines at the nearest port, and remove all weapons. Shut down all weapons satellites and forward the activation codes to the MOA.

You must reply in three days, or we will punish those who do not obey my orders. You will recall our attack on Egypt. That was only a mild precursor to the devastation to follow if you do not cooperate.

His Royal Highness, Sheik Oganda.’

 

Chang called his aide. “Mister Young, please send this message out to all members of the UN and call an emergency meeting for tomorrow afternoon. Make sure they understand this is not a joke. They must take this seriously.”

“I’ll take care of it right now.”

The secretary called the UN Security Council members to inform them and discuss options. It took him but a brief moment to convince them of the seriousness of the threat.

 

The meeting at the UN was fraught with anger and disbelief. The Chinese ambassador laughed at the threat. “No one would dare to attack my country,” he said. “Our retaliation would be catastrophic.”

The final resolution was, as the Secretary anticipated, a unanimous NO!

 

MOA HQ

Anwar, Pakistan

 

Oganda was infuriated when he read the UN’s reply. He could feel the blood pounding in his head; his face was red with anger; and his nostrils flared when he breathed. He curled his hands into fists and he beat his desk, screaming. “Yasaid, it’s time to teach these dogs a lesson. We are going to attack China.”

“Really? Attacking small countries, even Egypt, is one thing, Your Highness. However, a super power with strong militaries and nuclear, photon and antimatter delivery capabilities is quite another. The Chinese have strategic weapons and will not hesitate to use them in retaliation if attacked.”

Realizing he had to calm the jittery nerves of his lieutenant, the sheik smiled. “Relax. I have everything under control. First, we will strike their satellite command and control, missile silos, and primary air and army bases. After we have crippled their nuclear, photon and antimatter capabilities, we’ll destroy Beijing. This strike will kill most of their senior political figures and policy makers. The survivors will be paralyzed and unable to make decisions. They will be terrified and crumble.”

“I understand, but what about the Russians and Americans?”

“I don’t think they will do anything for fear we will attack them There’s no defense against our weapon. If we use it right, even the most powerful nations can’t respond in a meaningful way. When we strike, we must be quick, precise and without hesitation. Once the western powers see the devastation, they’ll have no recourse, except to lay down their weapons and surrender. I think the majority of the world powers will be quite hesitant to launch a strategic strike against Pakistan, or invade them, for that matter. Pakistan is either an ally or supplier of critical resources to most major countries.”

“Very well, Your Highness. What do you want me to do next?”

“Tell General Sone he must be ready when we issue the strike order. I want no delays or excuses. Tell our Intel agencies in China they must provide us with the information we need to strike the Chinese facilities — I’ve listed on this attack order — in two days. I want exact coordinates. Also, tell them to make sure the top political figures will be in Beijing when we strike. I do not want any of their senior leaders to escape, as they did in Egypt. Someday I’ll attack Egypt again and kill Hussein. I still have a score to settle with him.”

Yasaid was curious and a bit nervous about the sheik’s orders. “Why China, Your Grace?”

“It’s simple. Beijing is the center of a major world power, and China is one of the greatest international trading countries. Destroying their military and center of power will cripple their political and economic structure, and have a major impact on the global economy. It’s also a safer first attack than going after the Americans. The Western powers will not strike back as quickly as they might if we hit London or Washington. Also, if their major trading nations see the crippling effect this attack has on the global economy, the members of the UN may decide to surrender, rather than fight and face the same destruction.”

“Tell General Sone to attack this Friday afternoon at five.”

Chapter 55

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

President Stone was convinced the MOA would attack Americana and that forced him to reconsider his first strike options. Starship offensive weapons were not effective for ground attacks. A nuclear, photon or antimatter bomb attack was out of the question. The fall-out and devastation would be too great. The Pakistani president would never agree to it. Dr. Stevenson’s group at STL was developing the counter weapon technology, but it would not be ready for at least two weeks. His only viable option was to launch a space-based Rod from God (RFG) attack; however, he didn’t think the President of Pakistan would agree. If not, even that was out of the question, but as a last resort, he might do it anyway and worry about the political repercussions later.

The military Chief of Staff, General Holmes, had told him two kinetic energy weapons should be sufficient provided they hit close. There would be no radioactive fallout, and the kinetic energy would dissipate before it left the Waziristan Valley.

 

He called the Pakistani president and discussed the option with him.

“I know about the threat, Ulysses, but I am reticent to agree. I need to talk to my chief of Staff. I’ll get back to you.”

Even the Pakistani Intelligence Service did not know the exact location of the facility. After meeting with his military advisors, President Mousaref called Stone and to his surprise, agreed to the launch of two rods.

 

Command and Control Center

Pentagon

Washington, D.C.

 

Colonel Williams, the weapons officer at the Pentagon’s Satellite Weapons Control Center (SWCC), finished his system checks as General Holmes and his staff walked into the SWCC.

“Colonel, the president has ordered the launch of two RFGs to these coordinates. I want to initiate the attack at 1500. Can you be ready?”

“Yes, sir,” the colonel replied. “I’ll start the launch sequence right now. It shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to wake the bird up and get it in position.”

“Very well, make it happen.”

“Yes, sir.” The colonel turned and commanded the system. “Computer, give me the map for Pakistan.”

A map of Pakistan appeared on the main display screen at the front of the facility, and a holographic satellite control and communication interface was projected above his control console. “Computer expand targeting map. Initiate launch sequence Alpha to the following coordinates.”

He pointed at a position on the holographic map, projected over the console, and the computer replied.

 

“WORKING. WAZIRISTAN VALLEY COORDINATES TARGETED. ACKNOWLEDGE COORDINATES.”

 

The colonel acknowledged agreement. Within a few minutes, the computer acquired sync with the global navigation system, WNS, and displayed the targeting and satellite geometry on the main display screen.

 

“satellite is OPERATIONAL and ready on your command to start the launch sequence. Please enter the authorization codeS.”

 

Williams and Holmes each entered authorization codes using the holographic control interface, and the computer responded.

 

“Codes validated. INITIATING Launch sequence.”

 

The general rubbed the searing pain in his left arm. I wish I had more up-to-date information about Stevenson’s efforts. “Bring up Recon satellite 321B. I want to image the valley and see what the damage assessment looks like.” I hope my heart holds up. It would be a disaster if I had another heart attack now.

“Yes, sir. Recon Satellite 321B is displayed on screen two.”

The general and his staff studied the system protocol exchanges as the computers uplinked the launch commands to the satellite. After several handshakes and coordination messages, the satellite fired its tri axial thrusters to obtain the correct spatial orientation, and blew the canards from two RFGs. It extended the missiles and rotated them into firing position.

The satellite re-synced with the worldwide navigation system, ran final system checks, and relayed its status to the SWCC. The fire control computer updated the displays and status information, and announced:

 

“Targeting solution acquired. AWAITING LAUNCH command.”

 

Williams looked at Holmes who nodded approval. “Computer, fire missiles one and two with a five second launch interval.”

 

“LAUNCH command given.”

 

The fire control computer uplinked the command. The weapons control computer on the satellite blew the pyrotechnic bolts and activated the first RFGs rocket engine. The missile leaped from its captive position and initiated its descent to target. Five seconds later, the second missile was unleashed, and the weapon sprinted from its launch platform with a burst of energy. Both RFGs down linked positional information and system status to the SWCC as they descended. The main display board was updating real-time with status information, and the track of both missiles as they made their way to the designated target.

General Holmes wished the Intel from the CIA had been more precise. He hoped they would be close enough to take out the facility. He knew if they failed, the MOA would strike back hard, and the attacks could be devastating.

 

“TARGET ACQUIRED. FIVE SECONDS TO IMPACT.”

 

Both RFGs hit the target five hundred meters apart. The central impact zone exploded in a burst of energy rising five hundred feet in the air and filling the sky with dirt and rock. The kinetic energy from the primary impact sent out multiple enormous shock waves, plowing up the Earth and destroying everything in its path. It blew the tops of small hills off, and caused extensive rockslides. The attack left a deep crater and bare Earth for a radius of five miles around the central strike area.

I hope we got those bastards. That was like a small asteroid impact or a nuclear bomb detonation. Very interesting to watch it firsthand, Holmes thought.

The computer announced:

 

“TARGET DESTROYED.”

 

“What’s your next order, sir?”

“Stand down for now, Colonel. I’ll call the president and inform him. All we can do now is wait and see.”

Chapter 56

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

General Sone was drinking a cup of tea when the two RFGs struck. The force of the kinetic energy knocked him from his chair and broke his favorite teacup.

What the hell is going on? He thought. “Someone will pay for this!” he yelled. “Damn … I hurt my shoulder.”

He got up, wincing, holding his arm to minimize the pain to his shoulder, and rushed to the control room. Lieu had risen to his feet. Papers and cups littered the floor. Technicians groaned as they lay on the floor in shock.

“Lieu, what happened? Is the system all right?”

“We’ve been attacked, General. I suspect someone fired an RFG at us. I’m thankful it wasn’t close enough, or we would all be dead.”

“How do you know it was an RFG? What about the system?” the general demanded.

Lieu looked up at the status boards. “There doesn’t seem to be much damage. Computer, run full system diagnostics and report status.”

 

“Working.”

 

“I don’t think we suffered any damage. Our system’s located three hundred feet below the surface. There are special layers of mineral deposits that attenuate shock waves. All of our systems and the room itself are shock mounted with the latest state-of-the-art shock attenuation systems. The computer should finish its diagnostics shortly. To answer your other question, I think it was an RFG because the sensors show no signs of nuclear particles, antimatter residue, or fallout. This was a kinetic energy weapon, no doubt about it.”

The general sighed in relief. He would have hated to die from radiation sickness. Worse yet, he did not want to tell the sheik they would have to delay the attacks, and face a possible beheading.

“Inform me as soon as the results are finalized. I’ll be in my office. I hope this won’t delay our attack on Beijing this afternoon.”

Lieu straightened his glasses before speaking. “We should be able to strike at five as planned. I’ll start preparations shortly.”

“Excellent.”

Sone wondered who might be behind the attack as he walked back to his office. The only countries capable of such weaponry are the major powers of the west, Russia or China. Egypt has close ties with China, so maybe they reciprocated as part of the mutual defense agreements between the two countries. One thing’s certain; whoever it was didn’t know the exact location of the facility. If it was China, they will soon cease to be a player.

He entered his office, picked up the pieces of his cup, and dropped them in the trashcan. “Oh, shit. My favorite teacup. Damn it to hell! I loved the pretty little flower design.”

Sone was impatient for Lieu to finish his work. At the peak of his frustration, Lieu’s message appeared on his Qtab.

‘The system checks are complete. Attack preparation has commenced for the fifteen military targets ending with Beijing. The first attack will start at 5 p.m. as ordered.’

 

I had better call, Oganda and give him our status.

Oganda and Yasaid were having tea when the Sone called in over the video link.

“I didn’t expect a call this early. What’s wrong?” the sheik asked.

“Your Highness, we were attacked with an RFG kinetic energy weapon.”

The sheik jumped to his feet. His eyes had a wild look and his nostrils flared with rage. “Is the system okay? Can we proceed as planned?” he screamed.

“Yes to all, Your Highness. Fortunately, our facility and system is shock mounted and naturally shielded from kinetic weapons. Our attackers obviously did not know our exact location, so it was not a direct hit. We can proceed with the attack as planned.”

“Your Highness, I’m concerned. If we attack China, do you think the Russians or the U.S. will launch another attack against us, or invade Pakistan? It had to be China, the U.S. or Russia who launched the RFG attack — most likely the Americans.”

The sheik took a sip of his tea. “Yasaid, your attack assessment is correct. Our Intel network should give us the information tomorrow. I think the Russians will be pleased Beijing is out of the economic picture. They’ve been in a fierce trade war with China for several years and will probably be happy we’ve eliminated their chief rival. Further, when Moscow sees how we destroyed China, they will play a wait and see game. The U.S. is a different issue. They’re a major trading partner with China and will be extremely concerned. Their response is hard to judge.”

“They will crawl off and whimper like whipped curs,” the general added.

“I hope so. It’s obvious the infidels haven’t learned their lesson. Very well, General, school’s now in session. Call me when the strike is complete.”

 

Lieu completed the final system checks as General Sone walked into the command and control room to observe the attack on the big board.

Lieu faced Sone and said, “The system’s on-line and all targets programmed in and prioritized. We’re ready to start the attack.”

“Very well … proceed.”

“Computer, initiate the weapon system,” Lieu ordered.

 

“WORKING. DESIGN SIMULATION COMPLETE. ACCESSING WNS FOR FINAL COORDINATE AND TIME UPDATE. FIELD AND MATTER SYNTHESIZER DATA TRANSFER COMPLETE. ALL SYSTEMS GO.”

 

Sone fondly rubbed the handle of his sword as he awaited the first strike.

Lieu scanned the metrics board. “We’re ready, sir.”

The general was only all too pleased to give the attack order. “Proceed,” he said, with a smile. To him, the real war had started, and he was convinced they were now the most powerful military force in the world.

I wonder how many millions we’ll be able to kill before the idiots realize who their masters are and capitulate. I really enjoy eliminating the infidel dogs. I hope I can see them die on the big screen.

“Computer, initiate the targeting sequences,” Lieu commanded.

 

“WEAPON SYSTEM STABLE. NAVIGATION COMPUTERS ARE IN COMMAND OF THE FIELD SYNTHESIZERS. TIME ON FIRST TARGET: ONE MINUTE.”

 

The world targeting display flashed with system status information and showed fifteen high-value prioritized targets, starting with the Dong Shawn Missile Base. All missile complexes, nuclear, antimatter, command, and control sites, major air bases, and key Army and Naval bases were lit up with coordinate information and priority designations.

The black hole appeared on the main weapons system display with its targeting tracks projected to the designated sites. The target trajectory for the missile base flashed, indicating the first strike. The navigation system moved the black hole to the target. Most of the military facilities including Beijing would cease to exist in less than two hours. China’s role as a player in world affairs would soon be over.

Wiping out China will position us as a major power broker, the general thought. Killing President Chow will be almost as great a thrill as destroying Cairo, Sone thought.

The black hole struck the Dong Shawn Missile Complex. It consumed the missile silos, all base facilities, and all personnel so fast the base commander couldn’t react quick enough. Nothing and no one escaped.

 

National Command Center

Hun Chi Air Base

China

 

Five Star General, Matsu Kang, Commander of Homeland Defense, was about to leave his command center for the weekend when the alarms sounded. What the fuck is going on? He scanned the big board. There must be a glitch in the computer systems.

A red indicator flashed over the Dong Shawn Missile Base. The general picked up his vid phone and called the base … no answer.

The computer announced:

“DONG SHAWN MISSILE BASE HAS BEEN DESTROYED.”

 

The general fought to control his emotions as he ran all the what-if scenarios through his mind. None of them made sense. His stress level accelerated. “Computer, was this a ballistic missile or airborne attack?” he asked, the slight quavering of his voice betraying his concern.

 

“NO ASF OR MISSILES HAVE BEEN DETECTED.”

 

What is going on? We’re not at war with anyone. This has to be some type of system error. He turned to his deputy, Colonel Hong, who sat at the command and control console. “Colonel, patch into recon satellites X34 and A26. Do it now!”

“It’s coming up on screen four, General.”

The missile base at Dong Shawn did not register. Only a few holes in the ground that were once missile silos remained. There were no signs of an explosion, and the satellite sensors had not detected any radiation, photon residue or antimatter particles.

This makes no sense. It is time to flush the fighters. He picked up his red video phone.

“General Ming, we have been attacked. Scramble all available ASFs to the Dong Shawn Missile Base. Order your wing commander to report to you and me as soon as he gets a visual.”

“Yes, sir, General.” Four Star General, Chow Ming, the Chinese Air Force Commanding General, entered the attack coordinates and pressed the AFS scramble alert to all air bases. He announced. “All AFS squadrons are directed to proceed to the designated attack location. We have downloaded the convergence point for all squadrons to your flight computers. This is not a drill.”

Who would dare attack us? Kang thought. The bastards will be sorry they fucked with us. I don’t believe this is happening. This could be the start of a major war. Who are we fighting?

Kang scanned the display board as the alert siren sounded at the Chang Ki Jong Air Base adjacent to the Dong Shawn Missile Complex. Satellite recon showed the same devastating results as the missile complex. Kang’s mind was swirling with confusion and doubt. The unknown aspect of the attack was driving him nuts. He fought to keep his cool, so his men wouldn’t panic. His pulse pounded like hammers in his temples, and small beads of sweat trickled down his face.

He immediately contacted Ming. “General, Chang Ki Jong has also been hit.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Ming replied.

“Computer, are you sure we have not suffered a ballistic missile or RFG attack?” Kang demanded.

 

“NO MISSILES, SATELLITE BASED WEAPONS OR ASF HAVE BEEN DETECTED.”

 

We have good relations worldwide. We’re trading partners with almost all countries — except the Russians, and they wouldn’t dare launch a preemptive strike. The Defense Minister will be on my ass like a fly on shit. I need to get an answer fast. Who or what would do such a thing. It must be the MOA black hole weapon system, Kang thought. We’ve never had a conflict with their leadership .I don’t understand this at all.

“Attention, run a system wide check, and patch in all radar and recon satellites to the main display screen in a matrix pattern,” he ordered. “I want to see all major defense installations. Look for anything that might resemble a weapon platform. Do it now!”

The noise level in the command center increased as his people endeavored to obtain the information he ordered.

Calling the Defense Minister without specific information was risky, but there was no choice. The senior political leadership had to be informed.

“Sir,” he reported, “the Chang Ki Jong ASF Base and the Dong Shawn Missile Complex have been destroyed. I’ve uplinked the information and recon photos to you.”

“What? Who attacked us?” the minister yelled in his ear.

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “We don’t know for sure. Satellite recon and surveillance radar has not detected any missiles, ASFs or other attack systems. I believe it’s the MOA black hole weapon system. I don’t understand why they would attack us. We’ve never had any disagreements with them. I recommend you get the President and other senior people to shelter until we get this sorted out. I’ve already scrambled the ASFs.”

“General, inform me of any new information immediately! I authorize you to use all weapons and military forces at your disposal. We must protect the homeland. I want to know who attacked us. This atrocity must not go unanswered.”

Never in my thirty years have I experienced anything like this, Kang thought.

For the first time Kang saw the demon on the big board, heading for the missile base at Tow Kam Sang. He stared at the monster. This is without question the MOA weapon system, and it’s going to be a very nasty fight. I’m not sure the monster can be killed. Why in the hell are they

attacking us? I better let Ming know the new target coordinates. He watched the ASFs on the big tactical display as they endeavored to intercept the target. They would be in position to attack in a few minutes.

 

ASF Attack Force

 

Colonel Chun, a twenty-year Chinese Air Force veteran, was in command of three hundred ASFs traveling at Mach 6 towards the attack site. As they approached the base, he gasped when he saw the black hole. In as steady a voice as he could manage, he reported. “General, we have the target in sight, but I don’t know what it is. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like a black hole in the sky. I’m going to start the attack now, but I don’t know what we’re fighting.”

“Attack immediately,” Kang ordered.

Chun armed his weapons computer and announced, “All squadron leaders converge on my position and follow me to target. Conduct the attack in five waves, using a simultaneous firing solution. I’ll lead the first wave, followed by Colonels Tung, Tau, Hunjow, and Kong in rapid succession. After the last wave, proceed with a random attack pattern. Computer, arm photon missiles, maximum intensity, and set to detonate on centroid of the target. Give me a two degree spread and detonation three seconds after entry coordinates.”

 

“ALL MISSILES ARMED. READY TO LAUNCH.”

 

“Wing leaders, I’m going in. Follow my lead.” Chun led the first wave firing missiles and his laser cannons. The monster had taken his wife, a captain at the Dong Shawn Missile Complex. He was determined to kill it and avenge her death. What in the world is this thing? It looks like a black hole into hell. His heart raced so fast, he felt like it would explode. He gulped the pure oxygen as his stress increased. Got to slow down or I’ll hyperventilate.

He flew his ASF into the black hole. The enormous “G” load grabbed him. He knew he couldn’t pull out. The great dragon had him in its jaws. There was no escape. You son of a bitch, you will eat me, but I have a present for you. The forces acting on his body made it very difficult to move his arms. With great effort, he pushed his quantum prolusion system into overload.

The avionics computer warned:

 

“THE SYSTEM WILL DESTRUCT IN THREE SECONDS. REDUCE POWER DEMAND IMMEDIATELY.”

 

Chun screamed at the top of his lungs as the black hole pulled his ASF in. The enormous gravity stretched his body like a piece of flimsy plastic spaghetti. His last sensations were his eyes popping out of his skull and the atoms of his body flying apart.

The propulsion system exploded, and the monster sucked the energy up like a kid slurping the last bit of a milk shake.

Chapter 57

 

National Command Center

Hun Chi Air Base

China

 

“Colonel Hong, display the attack on the central holographic screen,” Kang ordered. “Switch in recon satellites HV14 and MTO6, and set the imaging to high definition.”

“Satellites patched in,” Hong replied. “You should see the display details now.”

Kang studied the attack, trying to assess any weakness they might exploit. Unfortunately, there was none. The battle continued as Hundreds of ASFs attacked the monster.

ASFs screamed into the beast’s mouth, firing every weapon, using every tactical maneuver, but nothing worked. They were as a swarm of flies buzzing around a big bull grazing in a pasture. A nuisance, but no threat. As they approached the black hole event horizon, it pulled them into its mouth. There was no escape from the powerful gravity.

I’ve never seen such a horrible thing. Missiles, lasers — nothing fazes this demon from hell. It simply feeds off the energy of the weapons and becomes stronger — extending its reach. Can nothing kill this thing?

Not one ASF survived. The monster destroyed the entire Chinese Air Force in minutes.

 

Buddha protect us, the monster has decimated our entire Air Force. Bombs, missiles, exploding propulsion systems, nothing affects this demon. I have to call the Defense Minister. We only have one option left. If this doesn’t work, we’re doomed to hell.

Kane took a deep breath before he picked up the red video link and called the Defense Minister. “Sir, all of our ASFs have been destroyed.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t believe we’ve lost all of our ASFs. You’re making no sense, General!”

“I’m sorry, but it’s true. Our weapons were like peashooters against this weapon. It actually feeds off the energy of our weapons when they explode! Sir, I’m convinced this is the MOA black hole weapon system our UN Ambassador briefed us on — the same one that destroyed Cairo. It looks like a black hole in the sky. Nothing we do has any effect on it. We attack and it gets stronger. It’s annihilated most of our military installations and ASF bases. We have no conventional weapons left to defend ourselves. In fact, we don’t have much left to fight with, period.”

“General, launch a nuclear, antimatter and photon bomb missile strike. Maybe one of those will cause it to overfeed and destroy itself.”

“Yes, sir, immediately!”

The general picked up his phone gave the order to the remaining missile base commander to fire all of his nuclear, antimatter and photon bomb missiles at the black hole. There wasn’t much time left. The demon was systematically destroying their military capability, and it appeared to be heading towards their last missile complex.

All of China’s remaining ballistic missiles erupted out of their silos and headed towards the black hole at Mach 15. Kang watched the war room board, which showed the tracks of the missiles. How can we fight this dragon from hell? If this doesn’t work, it’s the end of China.

The command and control computer announced:

 

“TEN SECONDS TO TARGET.”

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

Sone studied the action on the recon screens at the Waziristan Complex. The event horizon sucked the incoming missiles into its mouth as the warheads exploded. The additional energy made the black hole stronger.

Lieu’s concern grew. The system was straining to maintain control of the black hole. Yellow warning lights flashed.

“Lieu, take corrective action,” the general screamed.

“I’m trying, General. The nuclear energy has invigorated it to an almost uncontrollable state. If it becomes self-regenerating, there’ll no way to restrain it. It will break free and destroy the Earth.”

“Don’t give me excuses,” Sone screamed.

The warning horns sounded, and red warning lights flashed as the computer announced:

 

“ATTENTION. SYSTEM CONTROL MARGINAL. TAKE CORRECTIVE ACTION.”

 

“Increase the synthesizer coil voltages!” Lieu yelled.

“Doctor, it’s already red-lined at 100 percent,” Sinbad reported.

The black hole would destroy them if they failed to take corrective action. “Take it to 120 percent!” Lieu demanded.

The power systems teetered on the brink of collapse as Sinbad made adjustments. The facility lights dimmed and the main power sources glowed red from the heat due to the excessive power drain. Smoke and sparks spat from junction panel boxes as the synthesizers demanded more energy. The monster was growing stronger, about to break loose.

The warning horns wailed as the computer announced:

 

“WARNING, POWER SYSTEM MELTDOWN WILL OCCUR IN ONE MINUTE.”

 

Lieu’s stomach had a huge knot in it; his heart pounded as if it would burst from his chest. He stared at the metric board, hoping it would not turn against them. The warning horns screamed so loud they hurt his ears, and the flashing alert lights were confusing. He realized it would only be a few minutes before the monster broke loose and killed them all.

The power system gave up its last reserves and the facility lights dimmed, starved for power.

The main power sources glowed, oscillating color between orange and red — surface paint and coating metals were beginning to sweat. Intense heat waves emanating from the power units was so strong it was impossible to enter the power control room. The seconds dragged like hours as Lieu scanned the metric board for some sign of control.

It is all over, Lieu thought. It’s going to break loose. The power systems aren’t going to hold it.

The demon fought hard to remain free and feed, but stubbornly relented to its maters commands. Lieu, fighting thorough his own mental confusion and terror, was somehow able to control the monster. He had never been so frightened in his life. He understood the destructive power of this beast, and knew all too well, how close they came to dying.

 

“SYSTEM STABILITY AND CONTROL RESTORED. POWER SYSTEMS NEED COOL DOWN TO PREVENT FAILURE.”

 

“General, we have to shut the system down and let the power system recover. We almost lost control,” Lieu warned.

“Continue the attack,” the general ordered. “We must hit Beijing!”

Is he nuts? Lieu thought. They would lose control if the demon had another nuclear feed, it would become self-sustaining, break loose, and seal the fate of planet Earth. The power systems were close to failure. Despite his better judgment, Lieu complied and initiated the final attack. He wasn’t sure they could maintain control if the black hole became even more powerful.

 

Beijing, China

 

The attack reduced China’s military capability to that of a third world country. At 7:30 p.m. in Beijing, the streets were crowded with workday traffic. People scurried to get home after a busy day, unaware they were under attack. The president of China was in his underground command center with his senior staff reviewing the damage, trying to decide what to do before this dragon devoured their country. They had no military options left, nowhere to turn.

“What in the world is that horrible noise?” The president inquired.

The demon from hell tore the five-foot thick concrete and steel ceiling structure from the war room as if it was paper.

The president looked into the monster’s ravenous mouth … the last thing he ever saw. He tried to scream, but no sound emerged. The demon sucked the marrow from his bones and the atoms from his body.

The death and destruction of Beijing was rapid and complete. The black-eyed demon swooped down like a giant dragon from hell devouring everything molecule-by-molecule, atom-by-atom — buildings, vehicles, millions of people and all signs of civilization. Thousands of years of history destroyed in a few heartbeats. China, as a world power, no longer existed.

After the monster complied with its master’s will, they forced it back to its lair to await another feeding frenzy.

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

National Security Advisor, Ian Romanoff, ran into Stone’s office at the same moment Holmes called in.

“Mr. President,” Romanoff gasped. “Our satellites indicate Beijing and China’s entire nuclear and major defense installations have been destroyed. It’s horrible. As far as we can tell, the country’s in total disarray. We think they took out the entire senior cabinet of President Chow. We’re certain the MOA is behind this.”

President Stone fell back into his chair knocking his coffee on the floor. He knew it was only a matter of days before they hit the States.

“Ian, I want you and Holmes to set up a national security meeting ASAP. We’re next on their hit list.”

The President broke protocol and called Andrew Stevenson as soon as Ian left.

Andrew pondered the reports Sara and Teri left in his office. He switched on the monitor and saw it was the president. “Mr. President, how can I help you, sir?”

“Andrew, the MOA destroyed China a few minutes ago. There’s not much left.”

Andrew’s mouth dropped in disbelief. “I can’t believe it, Mr. President. Were a lot of people killed?”

“We believe the entire population of Beijing was massacred.”

“Beijing has a population over 30 million.”

“It was a horrible attack, identical to Cairo. No one survived.”

“Mr. President, I assume you’re calling to see where we are?”

“They haven’t threatened us yet; however, I’m certain it’s only a matter of a days or a couple of weeks at the most before they attack. So yes, I need to know the status of the counter weapon technology. It’s getting to be our only hope. I do not want to launch a strategic strike against Pakistan unless I have no other choice. They’re one of our best allies, and it could kill too many innocent people.”

“Mr. President, we‘re almost done, but we’ve hit a small snag. Dr. Stevens and Dr. Martin just left my office. They need Dr. Tarnak Zontal, the Kandarian. He can help us wrap this up quickly. We’re so close. It‘s only a matter of a few small, but significant and very complicated details. Unfortunately, Tarnak’s on the way back to Kandar. I was getting ready to ask Bill Mitchel to try and call him back.”

“Never mind asking Bill. I’ll have Tarnak at your facility tomorrow evening. Good enough?”

“Yes, sir.” Wow, he doesn’t screw around.

“Andrew, we’re counting on you. Do not let us down. I’m quickly running out of options. I think we only have about 48 hours before they attack us.”

Chapter 58

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

The message President Stone received was simple.

 

‘Lay down your arms and provide a written unconditional surrender to the MOA. You have one week to provide evidence of compliance, or we will destroy Washington, and all major defense installations in your country. We await your answer.

 

His Royal Highness, Sheik Oganda’

 

The president tossed the message down. Well, I knew the situation would come down to this. I hope Stevenson and his people can pull this out.

 

Wormhole Development Facility

 

Andrew was deep in thought about the situation he and his team faced.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the MOA pulled a fast one and shortened the deadline on us. That’s what I’d do, if I wanted to keep someone off balance. My gut says I need to put the team on a seventy-two hour timeline.

A knock at his door startled him out of his thoughts. Sara, Teri, Daniel, Scott, and Tarnak stood outside the entrance to his office.

“Tarnak, it’s great to see you!” He walked over and extended his hand.

“I was half-way back to Kandar when we got the call from your ambassador.”

“We need your help.”

“I received a run down on your situation early this morning.”

“Have you been briefed on our counter weapon strategy?” Andrew asked.

“Not yet.”

“Sara, it’s your idea,” Teri said, giving her the nod.

“It’s obvious neither conventional nor strategic weapons will work against the black hole,” Sara explained. “Therefore, our only hope is to create a virus analogous to what Lars put in our system that allowed them to downlink code to change the navigation parameters when we were on the Tango 555 mission. We’ve modified the virus substantially, so their scanners can’t detect it. They’re smart people, and by now Lieu has most likely added the code to detect the Lars virus and variations of it.”

“What about network mapping?” Andrew asked. “The last time we discussed this we couldn’t trace the path beyond the Central Arab League headquarters?”

“With the Pentagon’s help, Daniel and Scott incorporated network tracers in the WNS computers. We now have the capacity to map their networking, and detect when they’re trying to download spatial and time coordinates to set up for an attack.”

“So how does the virus differ from what Lars did?” Andrew asked.

“The objective is the same, but that’s where the similarity ends. We’ve employed a new stochastic coding technique. It’s a completely new design, and I seriously doubt they can detect it. The code encryption methodology changes probabilistically as a function of time. The tokens will not have a stable, identifiable pattern, so correlation analysis won’t work unless one has a very long integration time. If you don’t have the unlocking keys, it would take far too many iterations to break the codes.”

“What’s the bottom line?”

“It’s simple,” Sara said, in a matter of fact tone. “I plan to inject the virus into their system when they access WNS to set up for an attack. It will incorporate code that causes the black hole to turn on its originating location. The result … their own weapon will destroy them. We have to modify the gravitational field equations code for the field generators. That’s why we wanted assistance from Tarnak.”

“With his assistance, we’ll cut our completion time by eighty percent,” Daniel said.

 

Andrew nodded. “I hope our encryption codling’s foolproof. Lieu’s a genius on this stuff. He won’t be easy to fool.”

“How much time do we have?” Tarnak asked.

“One week before they attack, and we only have six days left. I assure you; the military’s going to be breathing down our neck and pushing to finish this quick with nukes. I’m certain the MOA will pull a fast one and shorten the deadline. So we need to get this wrapped up within seventy-two hours.” Everyone nodded agreement.

“Daniel, Scott, and I can modify the field equations in two days, or less,” Tarnak said. “The real kicker will be the virus. We all know the MOA system will have leading edge capabilities as far as virus detection technology’s concerned. Everything hinges on Teri and Sara and their ability to make the virus not only stealthy, but give it the ability to fight off some of the most sophisticated antivirus code existing. Lieu is one of the world’s leading experts in antivirus technology. If the virus fails, we fail. ”

“Okay, team. Let’s get to work. We’ve got a lot to do and not much time,” Andrew said, as he left for his office.

“I’m getting nervous as hell,” Mitchel said, as Andrew answered the secure video link. “What’s going on out there? Romanoff’s on my case worse than an ambulance-chasing lawyer. I think I’ve had five ass chewings today. The entire Pentagon and the President’s National Security Team are bouncing off the ceiling. The only thing between a full out invasion or nuclear attack is the president. He seems to be keeping his composure … so far.”

“Bill, I’ve put the team on a seventy-two hour timeline. I believe we will have a working solution by then.”

“Chairman Holmes is pressing the President to attack Pakistan. So far, Stones resisting. He and the Pakistani president are working closely, but if your plan fails, we have no recourse. Heaven only knows the ramifications from the international community if we launch a nuclear strike against Pakistan.”

“I downloaded the plan to your Qtab.”

Bill nodded and replied, “I’ve seen it. I’m going to brief Romanoff so he can update the President and the Joint Chiefs first thing this afternoon. Maybe he’ll stop chewing my ass.”

“Well, let me know if I can help you.”

“Thanks, Andrew, I will. I hope the President can maintain a cool head. I’d hate to be in the president’s position right now.”

“I don’t envy him his job.”

Chapter 59

 

The Oval Office

White House

 

“I don’t believe it!” Stone exclaimed. He activated the video phone. “Ian, come to my office. Immediately!”

Ian ran through the oval office door and asked. “What’s wrong, Mr. President?”

“Get Holmes over here right now! The MOA has given us twenty-four hours to surrender. Call STL and find out how Stevenson’s doing. If he can’t beat this deadline, we need to make sure Holmes’ plan is ready to go. Even if Stevenson is ready, we need a backup. Inform the general I want him to ensure all I have to do is press the red button and launch the missiles. Tell Holmes I’m ordering an immediate DEF CON 1.”

Ian’s hands shook as he called the general and ordered him to set Defense Condition One. Ian could not recall any time or situation requiring the United States to set a DEF CON 1 condition. It was scary — not only for him, but for America, and the world. What if this starts a global thermonuclear war? His whole body trembled as he contemplated the consequences of such a catastrophe.

Romanoff set up an emergency conference call with Holmes, Mitchel, and Andrew Stevenson. “The MOA has given us twenty-four hours to surrender,” he began. “President Stone has placed us on DEF CON 1. All hell’s about to break loose.”

“I sort of expected this,” Andrew remarked.

“Can you have the counter weapon ready in time?”

“Andrew!” Bill prodded.

“I’m thinking … yes. The algorithms are complete and they’re integrating the field equations into the virus program as we speak. Dr. Forrester, with help from the Pentagon, has already modified the WNS system code to link them to us when they access the satellites, so I’m certain we can be ready … provided nothing unforeseen happens.”

“What do you mean?” Ian demanded.

“Excluding some extraordinary event we can’t anticipate, we’ll be ready. We’re proceeding without a beta test, so there is some risk.”

“We have a plan B ready if you can’t get there in time, or if your efforts aren’t successful,” Romanoff said. “I can see the nuclear catastrophe that’s about to happen.”

Andrew wiped his forehead. His stress level was off the charts, but he kept a lid on it. “I’ll tell the team, and we’ll be ready.”

 

STL

Mission Control Center

 

Everyone in the MCC worked like there was no tomorrow and maybe, there wasn’t. Andrew walked up to Marc. “I need to talk to the team. Romanoff and Mitchel called a few minutes ago. We only have twenty-four hours until the MOA attacks.”

“Are you serious?” Marc took a hefty swig of his coffee. His eyes were wild and a deep furrow formed between his eyebrows. “Attention team leaders. Come to the command console right now.”

“What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Daniel remarked.

Andrew shook his head. “I wish I had seen a ghost. We have twenty-four hours before the MOA attacks America. Can we do it?”

“It’s going to be close,” Sara replied. “We still need about twenty-three hours to complete everything. It’s going to be real tight.”

Andrew loosened his tie. “Okay team, let’s get on it.” A lot of people are going to die if we fail.

 

The team was close to putting the final touches on the virus code when the sound of an explosion came from the direction of the communications computer facility.

“What the hell was that?” Marc asked.

“I don’t know, but I sure didn’t like the sound of it.”

The IT technicians ran into the main control room. “Someone blew up the satellite communications computer!”

The noise level in the MCC dropped drastically.

“How bad is it?” Marc asked.

The senior technician shook his head. “Bad. In addition, the worst thing is we don’t have another computer. We only stock spare cards. I’m afraid we’re SOL unless we can pull a rabbit out of the hat.”

“Did we catch the person who did it?” Andrew asked.

“She got away … for now. I think security wounded her. So far she’s still on the loose.”

Andrew stared at Marc as they ran the options. “Marc, check to see if we can get a spare flown in from your main facility in Los Angeles?”

“I’ll call HQ and see if they have one ready to plug and play. With so little time, I’m not sure we can pull this off.”

“We have to, Marc. I’ll contact the Pentagon and try to have one airlifted in from there. If we work both angles, maybe we can get it done.”

“We needed something else to worry about.” Marc slammed his fist on the console. “Damn it to hell. I’d like to strangle that bastard Oganda.”

Andrew laughed. “Join the club. We need to keep calm and make sure everyone proceeds as though there is no problem. We don’t want to get the team spun up.”

Daniel spoke up. “I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.”

Thirty minutes later Marc, Andrew, and Daniel met in Marc’s office. Marc spoke first.

“All of our spare machines have been sent to the East Coast to a new facility in Maryland. Worse yet, all of them are undergoing mods to incorporate a major hardware and software design upgrade. Even if they worked around the clock, it would take at least thirty-six hours to get one here in good working order. What did you find out, Andrew?”

“General Holmes said they’ll take a spare machine from one of the communications centers and airlift it to us within an hour. The bad news is a big snowstorm is moving in to the D.C. area and it doesn’t look good. Even the military has grounded their planes. Holmes is pressing the President to launch a nuclear attack, but Stone’s still resisting. It may be unfair, but we’re the last line of defense. We have to make this happen. The alternatives are pretty gruesome.”

“We’ll make it happen, Andrew. By the way, did they find out who blew up the computer?” Daniel asked.

“No,” Marc replied. “Security thinks it’s a woman and is still hunting for her. We’ve put armed guards on all computer facilities with a shoot to kill order. Any unauthorized person who goes near those machines will be shot.”

Chapter 60

 

Andrews AFB

Washington, D.C.

 

The snowstorm hit the east coast with a fury, dropping ten inches of snow in a matter of two hours. The communications computer was loaded aboard a transport. A flight crew from the 105th Airlift Command was poised take off as soon as they received the go — no matter how bad things were.

The spaceport manager committed all of her resources to clearing the launch pads. The snowplows tried, but snow fell so hard it didn’t look good. Visibility and wind loading made steering and operating the plows next to impossible. Even the big transport bounced around.

Instrumentation made visibility a non-issue, but given the microbursts, icing and wind loading the transport would never survive liftoff. The pilot sat in his seat inpatient to fly — unable to do anything. He cursed the storm. Even going sub-orbital, the atmospheric turbulence would make things difficult, and it would take two hours to get the computer to its destination — if they could get airborne.

Damn this storm. I need to get this frigging bird in the air, he thought. Frustrated, he radioed the Pentagon. “Colonel, this is Special Lift Twenty-Two. I want permission to fly now! I think I can push through this.”

“Major. It won’t do us any good if you crash. Meteorology says a hole in the storm will be over you in a few minutes. When that happens, you can take off. Not before.”

“Roger, Colonel. Please keep me informed. I’m ready to go!” Screw this damn storm anyway. If it were up to me, I’d put this bird in the air right now.

“Major, this is control. The hole’s in place. Depart immediately.”

“Roger, sir. Okay crew, we’re taking off.” It’s about friggin’ time.

Despite the bitter cold, the ground crew finished de-icing the wings. Only ten hours remained before the attack.

“Tower, Twenty-Two is ready for liftoff.”

“Roger, Twenty-Two. You are cleared for departure.”

He activated the vertical propulsion engines, and as soon as the landing gear cleared the launch pad, the pilot pushed the throttle to 100 percent. The quantum propulsion system rapidly accelerated the craft, and the pilot put the transport into a steep, high velocity attack angle to get the transport out of the weather as fast as possible.

“Tower, this is Twenty-Two. We’re airborne and proceeding full throttle to Kirkland in Albuquerque.

The colonel in charge relied. “Roger Twenty-Two. Your corridor is clear to destination. Please be advised another big storm is moving towards Albuquerque from the West Coast. “When the ‘f’ are we going to get a break,” the pilot muttered.

 

Kirkland AFB

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

“Twenty-Two, this is Kirkland control. Please be advised a major storm is about to hit us.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Less than one hour. You’re cleared to pad five. We’re flashing the lights. The LATV is waiting for you.”

“Thanks Kirkland. I see the lights. I’m lining up on final approach now. Expect touchdown in two minutes.”

“Roger, Twenty-Two. I’m handing you over to final approach and ground control.”

The major sat the SOTC down on the assigned landing pad, cut the engines, and dropped the ramp. Drivers drove the Ground support vehicles into the cargo hold as soon as the ramp hit the apron.

 

LATV

Flight Alpha Six

 

It took ten minutes to transfer and secure the computer in the LATV cargo hold. The ground supervisor radioed the pilot. “All secure, sir. Take off when ready.”

The pilot lifted off and vectored the LATV towards the STL facility. He knew if they didn’t beat the storm, game over.

“Alpha Six, this is Kirkland ATC. Be advised you’re working against a sixty-knot headwind, and the storm is closing fast. Visibility is limited and we recommend you switch over to instrumented flight rules (IFR.) We have cleared all air traffic in your vicinity.”

“Thanks, Kirkland,” the pilot replied. “I’m going to instruments.” The pilot turned on his Ground Avoidance and Power Line Avoidance Radars. Power lines were notorious for causing the destruction of many LATVs, and the pilot did not want to be one of the statistics.

Only two hours left, and it would take at least one to get the machine to the facility — assuming the headwinds or microbursts didn’t get any worse. A high probability existed that the storm would hit before he landed. He pushed the LATV to its limits. With no visibility, the mission was now dependent on his expertise, radars, and instruments.

The LATV bounced around so bad; the pilot struggled to keep the bird on track. Flying at two hundred knots and fifty feet above the terrain using ground avoidance radar was one thing, but that combined with heavy downdrafts pushed his skills to the edge.

“Capt, this storm’s a bitch. Man, we’re gonna’ be a couple of lucky fuckers if we aren’t tangled in wires or have our asses slammed into the ground.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever flown in anything quite this bad. This is going to be a close one, Charlie.”

A heavy downdraft almost hurled the craft to the ground, forty feet below them.

“Holy, shit. I almost lost it!” The pilot gritted.

“Yeah, and I nearly puked on the console,” The co-pilot said. “This is worse than riding a roller coaster blindfolded.”

The storm grew more intense. Thrown around by the turbulence and strong winds, the pilot used all of his skills to keep the bird off the ground while avoiding obstacles. Not an easy task

Flying by IFR is tough enough, but this low and trying to avoid wires and the ground is about to kick my ass, he thought. We’ll be damn lucky if we don’t crash this bird before we get to STL. He sweated under his flight suit.

Marble sized hail bounced off the cockpit windshield. It startled the pilot, and he inadvertently jerked the stick, causing the LATV to lunge downward. The ground avoidance radar sounded the impact alarm. “Shit!” he yelled as he corrected the altitude.

“Charlie, I can’t believe we’re taking hail. If this stuff gets any bigger, we’re not going to make it.”

“Capt, you scared the shit out of me. I’m gonna’ have to throw my flight suit away.”

 

MOA HQ

Anwar, Pakistan

 

“Yasaid,” the Sheik yelled. “How are we doing?”

“The general has started the final system checks and will be ready for coordinate download in seventy-five minutes.”

“Very good.”

Yasaid smiled and crossed his fingers. Messing with a super power was a risky ordeal. He was very nervous to say the least. All of the chips were on the table.

 

STL

Wormhole Development Facility

 

“How far out are we? The pilot asked his co-pilot. “If this stuff gets any worse, I don’t think I can keep this thing in the air. Can you see anything?”

“It’s harder than shit to see. If I’m right, the runway lights should appear any second. There it is! I thought we’d never see this place except in body bags.”

The pilot landed the LATV adjacent to the control facility as the full fury of the storm hit. He dropped the ramp and the ground crew entered the cargo bay and began transferring the computer to a ground support vehicle. The howling wind and the jostling LATV made the transfer tricky. A tie down strap broke as they started down the offloading ramp. The computer tilted hard due to wind load.

“Grab hold of the computer. It’s going to fall over!” the supervisor screamed.

Two ground crew members slammed their bodies against the machine before it tumbled to the ground.

“Tie this machine down. Now!” The supervisor yelled.

It took five, critical minutes to get the tie downs secured. “I think we’ve got her under control,” the ground crewman yelled.

“Okay, let’s move this baby to its new home. Be very careful with this thing. We break it and it’s all over.”

 

The IT team set the computer in place with only thirty minutes remaining before the attack commenced. They still had to integrate it with the system. The techs hooked up the cabling, power systems, and tried to initiate the system. A tech flipped the main power switch several times. The computer wouldn’t boot.

“Hold on, I want to check the circuit boards. One may have worked loose during the transport.” The IT supervisor opened a rear panel to inspect the motherboard. Valuable time expired as he worked through the maze of optical circuit boards and interconnections. “Son of a bitch,” he yelled. “I think I got it. The friggin’ motherboard and a power board jarred loose. He pushed the cards into place. “Okay, try it now.”

A tech flipped the power switch. The maintenance panel lights flickered a few times and, after a brief moment of uncertainty, lit up as the machines operating system began to bring it to life.

Andrew and Marc sat at the main control console waiting for the IT supervisor call. “Doc, the machine’s in place and we’ve connected the communication links. It looks okay. You can start integration.”

“Thank goodness,” Andrew muttered.

Marc addressed the system control computer. “Computer, is the WNS communications computer on-line, and ready to function?”

 

“One moment. the computer is on-line and ready to Link with WNS at your direction.”

 

“Thank, God.” Marc breathed. “Please link in the Pentagon and display them on screen three.”

 

“THE Pentagon is linked in ON SCREEN THREE.”

 

“Andrew,” Marc said. “We’re ready to go. Looks like we only have about fifteen minutes before the attack. I hope this friggin thing works.”

“Me too. Let’s start the final integration routines.” He swallowed hard and exhaled a long, loud breath.

Holmes and Romanski were in the Pentagon war room observing operations in the MCC. “Where are we?” Holmes asked.

Marc took a deep breath, bit his lip, and replied. “We still have to complete the integration sequences. It’s going to be close, General.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Holmes exclaimed in a harsh tone, “let’s make sure we get this in-place. Right now!”

The system control computer announced:

 

“TEN minutes until WNS uplink.”

 

“Teri, it’s time to start the final integration sequences,” Sara said. “I’m not going to use voice. It’s too easy for a symbol to be misinterpreted, and there’s no time for reentry.”

“I agree, but voice is faster.”

Sara’s fingers flew over the keys in a blur. She focused like a laser as Teri watched in amazement. My, God, this woman works like a machine. I can’t follow her data entry. I hope she’s accurate.

 

“FIVE minutes to uplink.”

 

Sara started the final integration of the field equations with the virus routines.

 

“uplink iN tHREE minutes.”

 

Andrew studied Sara. it’s amazing how the fate of the U.S. depends on the skill of this young woman. I sure hope she’s up to it. I bet it has never occurred to her that she could fail. He blinked several times. I hope to hell she doesn’t.

“uplink WILL OCCUR iN two minutes.”

 

“Mr. President,” Holmes said, “I think we have to be prepared for plan B in about forty-five seconds.”

“I understand, General,” the president replied from his underground command and control center.

“We’re just about there, sir!” Andrew reported.

Sara’s teammates watched in awe as she entered the data at an uncanny speed. She seemed unaffected by time and seemed oblivious to the extreme situation. As she completed the final command entry, she looked at Teri and smiled.

 

“SIXTY seconds to uplink. ALL Code sequences are in place.”

 

Sara turned to Andrew with a look of relief, the most emotion she had shown throughout the ordeal.

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

General Sone monitored progress as Lieu set the final attack sequences in place.

“General, we’re ready to attack.”

“Proceed. Let’s get this over with,” Sone said with a smirk.

The large world targeting display showed the black hole forming over the valley.

“Start the final coordinate download from WNS,” Lieu ordered.

The navigation operator gave the final request. The computer sent the request to the WNS system. When the satellite’s on-board computer received the request, it rerouted it to the STL facility computers.

 

Pentagon/STL

Command and Control Center

 

“WE HAVE INTERCEPTED THE Coordinate request to WNS from THE Waziristan Computer Complex. Initiating virus integration sequence.”

 

At the completion of the final handoff, the computer announced:

 

“handshake with WNS accomplished. CODE Uplink completed.”

 

“General Holmes, our modifications worked!” Andrew exclaimed. “We’ve delivered the package.”

Holmes checked the satellite topography downlinks. They had done everything possible. Now it was a nervous, nail biting wait and see situation. This is nuts. I would’ve bombed those bastards. Damn, my left arm is killing me. I hope to shit I don’t have a heart attack. Not now, for heaven’s sake.

 

The antimatter and RFG satellite launch platforms targeting coordinates had been uplinked and both would be ready to fire as soon as the president commanded. It would take fifteen seconds for the high-speed missiles to impact the Waziristan Valley once he pushed the red button.

Ian Romanoff’s baldhead dripped with sweat. In the calmest voice, he could muster, he asked. “How long until we know this is going to work?”

“We have to monitor the sites,” Andrew replied. “About all we can do is watch. We’ve done all we can.”

“I know,” Holmes said impatiently. “But how long after they get the final coordinates before their system can direct the black hole on us?”

“Computer, how long will it take for the targeting system to get everything in place and position the black hole on target? Please give us a time reference.”

 

“TIME to target IS 10 minutes, 58.321 seconds.”

 

The president sat with his finger one-quarter of an inch from the red button. I’d hate to push this hideous button, but if I don’t see something concrete shortly, I’ll do it. He checked the satellite weapons status board and everything was green. The missiles were ready to fly at his command.

 

Black Hole Weapon Facility

Waziristan Valley

 

The black hole formed, and the system was ready to launch the attack. General Sone smiled and rubbed his palms together as he watched the big board. Not long now, he thought. The black hole moved slowly towards the continental United Sates following its programmed trajectory. Sone’s adrenalin surged through his body. The closer the black hole got to Washington, the more intense his excitement became. He couldn’t wait to start the destruction of the U.S. and especially to witness the killing of the American dogs.

The black hole moved closer to its target, only minutes left before the monster devoured Washington. General Sone watched the big board with glee and rubbed his hand across the top of his sword in anticipation of his greatest victory.

 

Cyberspace

The Final Battlefield

 

The counter virus was undergoing a transformation and beginning to execute its routines to compile itself. The MOA AI virus scanners prowled through the system and began to get suspicious of the strange unscheduled utility programs popping up from clock-time to clock-time. As it nosed around, one scanner routine detected a bit pattern that while it was not exactly to its invasive specs, it was close enough. Its fuzzy logic made the connection, and the scanner attacked the virus kernel.

It first tried to isolate the kernel and block off all transfer and jump routines it might use to escape. The kernel initiated a stochastic jump and interrupt maneuver, but the scanner had it isolated—in its claws, holding on tenaciously.

 

“FIVE MINUTES TO TARGET.”

Things were getting intense. The MOA scanner blocked off all avenues of escape for the virus kernel. Attack and counterattack operations occurred at trillions of operations per second. The scanner made a vital error, and the virus cut off its communications with the supervisory program, preventing it from getting help from other subroutines.

Having a few spare clock-times, the kernel compiled additional parts of its code. Using its enhanced capabilities, it isolated the scanner. The scanner tried every escape tactic in its library, to no avail. Finally, it reverted to its last ditch routine: a trap program designed to fool the virus into thinking the scanner had ceased its attack, followed by an engulfment strategy.

This was the scanner’s Achilles heel, and a key part of Sara’s design strategy. Once the scanner employed the trap routine, the kernel inverted it and used it to compartmentalize the scanner. Having isolated the antivirus program, the virus was able to devote more