"worthwhile effort... well worth the investment... something a little more unusual."
- Apex Digest
The darkness is coming...
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Sci-Fi Author S. D. McKee
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Defeated Chapter Excerpt
The following excerpt begins a few pages into chapter two of Defeated. Operation Giant Leap has entered its final stages of preparation, lead by Dr. Alek Nazarov, Director of Scientific Advancements at the Lunar Research Facility. Captain Jonathon Quinn and his crew are monitoring the operation from their post aboard the ICS Intimidator, which is holding position in low lunar orbit.
... "Dr. Nazarov is hailing you, Captain," announced Kate while glancing over at Jonathon, who was conversing with the two visiting scientists on the rear balcony.
"Put him through," Jonathon replied, turning to face the flickering main display screen.
"Hello again, Captain," chimed Dr. Nazarov, beaming with a prideful grin. "Ah, I see doctors Zhan and O'Neill have joined you."
"Hello, Dr. Nazarov," the two newly arrived visitors spoke in unison as they gave a little wave of acknowledgement toward their supervisor's image. They were still wearing their white lab coats, which provided a sharp contrast against the dark uniforms of their hosts.
"Everything's ready to proceed on our end," Dr. Nazarov continued. "We're eagerly awaiting the proper clearance from High Command."
Jonathon placed his hands firmly on the railing in front of him, leaned in a little toward the display screen and said, "Well then, Doctor, you'll be happy to know that we just received confirmation from High Command that Operation Giant Leap is a go. I've already entered my authorization code, so the honor of starting the countdown is all yours."
"Excellent, Captain, and thank you. We'll transfer your video feed to our primary screen where you'll be able to observe the entire lab. We'll also keep the connection active at all times, so if you need anything, simply speak up."
"That sounds fine, Doctor."
Jonathon turned his attention back toward his new guests.
"Where would you like us, Captain Quinn?" asked Dr. Zhan, speaking with a discernable Chinese accent. She was twisting the ends of her shoulder-length black hair, feeling nervous about her first visit to a warship.
Jonathon courteously pointed toward the forward balcony and declared, "You'll be able to monitor all aspects of the experiment from over there. But keep in mind that you're mainly here to provide assistance in the event of a problem."
"Oh, everything will go smoothly," Dr. Zhan boasted. "The micro wormholes we created in our previous simulations and laboratory experiments worked flawlessly. And while I recognize we're working on a much grander scale today, the outcome of this experiment won't be any different from the others."
Jonathon responded only with a polite smile, feeling amused with the young scientist's presumption. Though he had no formal scientific background and hadn't graduated summa cum laude from a prestigious research university, Jonathon seemed to have his feet better grounded in reality than Dr. Zhan did. Glancing sideways at Dr. O'Neill, he saw a gleam of amusement in the lanky scientist's eyes and a faint smile being held back. The elder scientist was well aware of the likelihood of failure for the bold experiment, having already calculated a mere thirty-eight-percent chance of success for the operation—well shy of a scientific sure bet.
"Woohoo!" Dead Eye cheered from his weapons station. "Operation Wild Ride is good to go."
Grinning in amusement, Jonathon turned to face the outspoken lieutenant. "Operation what?"
"Wild Ride, sir. I mean, I get the operation's whole Neil Armstrong, lunar landing connection, but why does the brass back at headquarters always have to come up with lame, inspirational names for the operations? I think mine sounds better, 'cause going through that wormhole would definitely be a freakin' wild experience."
Jensen shook his head at the lieutenant's words, considering them to be out of line, almost childish. But everyone else took the spirited remarks in the lighthearted context they were intended. Even the visiting scientists chuckled while strolling along the starboard catwalk.
"I'll be sure to tell High Command to contact you the next time they need a new project name, Lieutenant," said Jonathon, returning to the captain's chair.
"Why, I'd appreciate that, sir," Dead Eye replied in jest. He then tapped his right ear and reactivated his Micro Music Man earpiece, providing him with a private, energetic musical backdrop for the commencing experiment.
Once the command console on the captain's chair slid up, Jonathon began interacting with the pressure-sensitive display. The video feed from the research facility was transferred from the main display screen to one of the adjacent monitors, allowing a crisp image of the quantum gate to take center stage.
Both the left and right tactical stations were brought online as well, projecting holographic recreations of the lunar colony and the research facility. The central station still displayed a full projection of the moon, where a replica of the Intimidator was clearly visible, indicating its exact position above the research facility. Six Destroyer-class warships were also displayed, holding their positions in a wide circular perimeter around the Intimidator. The moon was under the watchful eye of the MPF.
Dr. Nazarov reached one hand up into his holographic interface and entered his authorization code, starting the ten-minute countdown timer. The larger-than-life main display terminal, mounted high on the wall along the back of the room, overlaid the video feed from the Intimidator with the countdown timer. Two identical screens, one on either side of the main terminal, displayed video feeds of the quantum gate from different perspectives.
"T-minus ten minutes," the computer's voice echoed through the room.
"Dr. Choam," called Dr. Nazarov, "please contact Dr. Kroger and instruct him to bring the first reactor core online."
"I've already spoken with Yohan," Dr. Choam replied as he hobbled toward his computer station, which was fitted with a more traditional touch-screen plasma monitor that was easier on his eyes. "The reactor should come online momentarily."
A low hum drifted through the enormous underground chamber of the Kroger-Stevens antimatter reactor—a heavily guarded sub-lunar compound that was located over two hundred kilometers from the Lunar Research Facility, due to the extremely hazardous nature of antimatter. One of the ten giant, spherical reactor cores had begun to power up as requested. The titanium-plated cores comprised the heart of the facility and were centralized in the chamber, with long magnetic tubes jutting out from their centers, connecting each core to the appropriate holding cells for its diametric fuel components. The containment fields within the prototype reactor cores had been engineered to control the explosive reactions, channeling the unrivaled energy up into the cylindrical power converters and out through the long stretch of buried conducting cables en route to the quantum gate.
Four black rods containing the potent antimatter fuel source were gradually lowered into the first magnetic holding cell while white fuel rods containing normal matter were simultaneously injected into their own holding cell at the opposite end of the chamber. Initially only a few grams of fuel would be released, but as more power was demanded from the reactor the rate of matter, antimatter consumption would increase dramatically. Once a reactor core reached full load, the adjacent core would come online. This process could continue until all ten cores were running at full capacity, generating more energy than mankind had ever harnessed. For the sake of simplicity and safety, however, the scope of the power requirements for this experiment had been constrained to only one reactor core.
"T-minus eight minutes," the computer announced.
"The reactor core is holding steady at one percent of capacity," an assistant shouted.
"Good," confirmed Dr. Nazarov. "I'm transferring power to the quantum gate now."
The Nazarov-Choam Quantum Gate was located approximately one hundred meters from the Lunar Research Facility in a heavily restricted, flat, wide-open area. A red-laser fence and twelve automated energy turrets enclosed the extensive radius of the test site, protecting the sensitive equipment from terrorists and tech thieves. Star fighter patrols from the MPF's lunar security force made routine sweeps over the area as well, enforcing the no-fly zone. Anyone attempting to gain access to the gate without authorization would be incinerated on the spot. The ICP wasn't shy about demonstrating their desire to protect their multi-billion-credit investment.
The quantum gate was a circular structure measuring five meters in diameter and had a deceptively simple appearance for such a complicated piece of technology that only a handful of scientists could comprehend. The glistening copper-toned ring itself was fashioned from several interlocking segments, each of which was composed of a thick, durable metal alloy designed to resist the intense gravitational fluctuations that were predicted to occur during the experiment. Additional support was provided at its base—a pyramid-shaped clamp that rose out of the ground, keeping the gate upright and immobile.
Having been designed on a limited scale for the initial operation, the quantum gate would only permit probes and small, unmanned drones to pass through. Eventually, however, the gate would be expanded by adding additional interlocking segments, forming a sufficiently large opening through which starships of any size could come and go at will.
Dozens of reinforced cameras and sensors were stationed in the area surrounding the quantum gate, mounted on small pedestals at every conceivable angle. The monitoring equipment would allow every aspect of the gate's operation to be observed and scrutinized.
Small white lights around the outer perimeter of the gate brightened in sequence as power flowed from the antimatter reactor into the gate's inner circuitry.
"T-minus six minutes."
"The quantum gate is now online,"Dr. Choam broadcast to the group. "I have confirmation that the quantum wormhole has been isolated and suspended within the gate's stasis field. It's now primed for reorientation."
"The reactor core's holding steady at two percent of capacity," announced the assistant monitoring the power readout.
"Excellent," said Dr. Nazarov. "I'm bringing the celestial targeting system online and entering the coordinates of Polaris. Stand by."
Polaris, also known as the North Star, had been chosen for the first wormhole destination due in part to its popularity, particularly in ancient cultures and mythologies. Astronomers in the late twenty-first century had also discovered a planetary system orbiting Polaris. Their findings hinted at the possibility that the second planet in the system was suitable for colonization. This discovery made the Polaris system an even more tantalizing target for the operation.
Tiny emitters located all around the inside perimeter of the quantum gate popped open, releasing steady bursts of subatomic tachyon particles that irradiated the center of the gate in an invisible, pre-programmed pattern. This method of tachyon bombardment enabled the exit point of the suspended quantum wormhole to be adjusted, within a fixed degree of error.
"T-minus five minutes," the computer stated, right on cue.
"Reorientation complete," Dr. Choam reported without even looking up from his computer terminal. "The quantum wormhole is ready for aperture synchronization."
"The reactor core's still holding steady at two percent of capacity."
"I'm transferring power to the expansor guns now," said Dr. Nazarov.
Six compact antigraviton-beam emitters, more commonly known as expansor guns, were attached to block-shaped metal platforms in front of and behind the quantum gate. The long, transparent barrels of the dusky, sophisticated devices were angled toward the center of the gate at a cool thirty degrees. They would fire intersecting beams designed to create a reverse gravitational field as the antigravitons collided with the quantum wormhole, triggering a controlled expansion. Once the power feed was increased, the wormhole would, in theory, steadily expand to fill the interior of the quantum gate.
Repeated pulses of red light began propagating through the clear firing tubes as the expansor guns came online.
"T-minus four minutes."
"The expansor guns are online and charging," Dr. Choam announced to the group.
"The reactor core's holding steady at three percent of capacity," said the assistant monitoring the power readout.
"Good," Dr. Nazarov remarked. "I'm firing the synchronization lasers now."
Each expansor gun discharged a continuous thin, red laser through the center of the quantum gate, intersecting at the exact location of the suspended quantum wormhole.
"The expansor guns are synchronized and precisely on target," Dr. Choam declared confidently after reading the sensor report.
"T-minus three minutes," the computer interrupted.
"I'm powering up the ghost-radiation field now," Dr. Nazarov stated.
Over 250 gigawatts of power began flowing into the quantum gate as an invisible energy field known as ghost radiation enveloped the space within the ring. Ghost radiation functioned to stabilize the wormhole, preventing a premature collapse. The strength of the energy field was directly proportional to the size of the wormhole so that when the quantum wormhole began to expand, the ghost radiation would automatically draw more power from the reactor. At its full, designated size, the wormhole would cause the quantum gate to consume nearly one hundred percent of the reactor core's power output.
"T-minus two minutes."
"Ghost radiation active," Dr. Choam acknowledged. His attention then turned to the pair of display screens that relayed images of the quantum gate.
"The reactor core is holding steady at six percent of capacity," the assistant monitoring the power readout shouted, sounding more excited each time the energy output spiked.
"Everything's proceeding according to plan," Dr. Nazarov proclaimed proudly. "I'm powering up the first probe."
Four spherical sensor probes were stationed along small, steel launching platforms that had been fastened to the lunar surface a short distance from the quantum gate. The light-gray probes measured one meter in diameter and were covered with tiny maneuvering thrusters, imaging devices, scanners, and four solar-charging fuel packs—everything necessary for the exploration of a new star system. But they served another purpose, not purely functional.Plastered along every unused inch of their surface were the handwritten signatures of each scientist involved in the operation, commemorating their years of dedication, and, in a way, taking part of them along for the ride.
In order to maintain an active communication link across the 430 light years that would soon separate the probes from their creators, they were fitted with standard communications hardware that linked them with the ICP's Quantum Communications Hub. The Hub, as it was more commonly known, made use of the bizarre discovery of quantum entanglement, which states that when one entangled particle is altered, the other particle in the pair is simultaneously altered as well, regardless of the distance that separates them. As each new communications component was created, so was a uniquely entangled system of particles. Half of the particles were placed inside the component's core while the other half was added as a new node within the Earth-based Hub. This clever arrangement enabled each starship, probe, mining platform, and colony to experience clear, real-time communication from anywhere within the Solar System. And with the advent of interstellar space travel, the transmission would continue uninterrupted from anywhere in the universe.
Short bursts of yellow exhaust shot out of the side thrusters of one of the probes as its engine test fired.
"T-minus one minute."
An increasing number of scientists began to huddle together in front of the display screens that relayed video feeds of the quantum gate.
"Here we go, gentlemen," Dr. Nazarov proclaimed enthusiastically to his colleagues, all of whom had their eyes and hopes fixed on the live coverage.
"T-minus ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one."
"Firing the expansor guns now," Dr. Nazarov shouted. Reaching up with one hand, he touched the illuminated firing command.
The pulsating red lights within the firing tubes of the expansor guns began to increase in frequency as the emitters prepared to discharge. An initial antigraviton burst was unleashed, causing a lambent twinkling of white light to appear at the center of the quantum gate.
"I'm detecting a small vibration in the gate from gravitational eddies, but it appears to be within acceptable parameters," Dr. Choam called out to Dr. Nazarov.
"The reactor core has climbed to ten percent of capacity," one of the assistants reported.
"The quantum wormhole has begun to expand," declared Dr. Nazarov, his eyes wide with anticipation. "I'm increasing power to the expansor guns now."
The pulsating light within the firing tubes began to intensify, then unexpectedly turned solid red as a copious burst of antigravitons shot into the wormhole. A blinding flash of light erupted from the center of the gate as the wormhole expanded to full size in a fraction of a second, releasing a gravitational shock wave that thundered out from the test site, slamming into the research facility.
Screams of panic flooded the lab as the dome trembled, causing a few of the startled scientists to lose their balance and stumble over backwards. The lights in the room dimmed and flickered while poorly placed pieces of equipment slid off desks, crashing onto the floor, even causing a small electrical fire to break out in one location.
The tremors soon subsided, leaving the laboratory in an unsettled quiet. After assisting those people who had fallen, the cautious group began surveying the room, checking for damage. One of the soldiers noticed the fire, grabbed an extinguisher off the wall and doused the flames.
"What the hell happened?" Dr. Nazarov shouted, his face burning red with anger.
"The sensor readout indicates that a power surge occurred in the expansor guns seconds before they fired, sir," one of the laboratory assistants stated, looking perplexed by his discovery and nervous about having to report it. "Uh, they apparently fired at full strength."
"How? The diagnostics didn't detect any anomalous hardware."
"I don't know, sir," the assistant replied, shrugging his shoulders out of habit. His lackluster response served only to increase Dr. Nazarov's level of irritation.
"The reactor appears to be functioning," one of the scientists interjected. "In fact, the reactor core's holding steady at ninety-eight percent of capacity."
Dr. Choam approached Dr. Nazarov's computer station where they both frantically tried to bring the cameras and external sensors surrounding the quantum gate back online.
"Dr. Nazarov!" Jonathon's voice anxiously blared from the lab's main display terminal. "We detected massive seismic activity down there. Is everyone all right?"
"Yes, Captain. We're a little shaken up, but I don't believe anyone was harmed." Dr. Nazarov's eyes swept once around the room, quickly verifying his claim before resuming the conversation. "And there doesn't appear to be any structural damage to the research facility, but we're still investigating. We're also trying to bring the gate's external sensors back online, so at the moment we're unsure of the full extent of the damage at the test site. The epicenter of the quake seems to have originated from the quantum gate's location."
"Was the quantum gate destroyed?" Jonathon asked, his head heavy with anticipated disappointment.
"I don't believe so, Captain. The gate's internal sensors still seem to be functioning and we're showing that it's currently drawing power from the reactor. We're merely awaiting visual confirmation."
"Captain," interrupted Kate, "Admiral Breckard is demanding a status report. He doesn't sound too happy."
"He never does. Tell him to stand by."
"Some of the cameras and sensors are coming back online now, Captain," added Dr. Choam. "You should see the video feeds on your terminals…now."
A shallow, twenty-meter-wide circular crater had appeared around the quantum gate. The lunar depression had formed under the explosive gravitational forces that had been unleashed during the instantaneous expansion of the wormhole.
The gate itself appeared to be structurally sound, although part of the stabilizing clamp had buckled. But all six of the expansor guns had been crushed, as had several of the cameras and sensors. Two of the probes were also irreparably mangled, including the one that was preparing to launch. Nevertheless, floating eerily within the quantum gate was the open mouth of a wormhole. Strange ripples moved across the spatial distortion, followed by small flares of white light. It was like staring into a pond as the moonlight reflected off gentle, wind-blown waves. A new star system could clearly be seen within the gently oscillating boundaries of the wormhole.
The low rumbling of simultaneous conversations flooded the laboratory as the dismayed scientists discussed the damage they were observing. But once the test site's remaining cameras came back online, silence swept through the room, leaving everyone to stare in awe at the crisp images of the wormhole that decorated the two outer display screens. Such striking imagery complimented the astonished faces of Jonathon and his officers.
"Dr. Nazarov, is that what I think it is?" Jonathon called out, sounding guardedly optimistic. He was leaning forward in his chair, staring at the peculiar image of the wormhole on the main display screen of the bridge.
"Yes, Captain. We are indeed observing a fully expanded wormhole within the quantum gate. It appears that despite our little mishap, the initial phase of Operation Giant Leap is a success."
"Fascinating," Jonathon replied in a whisper. He took a moment to admire the spectacular view, then asked, "Are you certain the wormhole's stable?"
"I believe so, Captain, although stability is a relative term here. We've yet to fully master wormhole physics." Dr. Nazarov peered down at the latest status report before continuing. "We're not detecting any anomalies with the gate's operation on our end."
"Commander," said Jonathon, turning to face Jensen, "gather a damage report of the test site ASAP and forward it on to High Command."
"Dr. Nazarov," one of the scientists interrupted, "I'm showing an unusually high concentration of radiation emanating from the wormhole's location."
"Is the wormhole radioactive?" inquired Jonathon, sounding surprised.
"No, Captain," Dr. Choam assured him. "The radiation must be coming from the other side of the wormhole. It's possible that our destination coordinates were a little off their mark, placing the exit point closer to Polaris than we had intended. Unfortunately, there is a certain degree of error with the celestial targeting system."
"I see. Well then, is it safe to proceed with the second phase? We're showing that two probes are still operational."
"Absolutely," Dr. Nazarov answered without hesitation. "There are a few minor fluctuations in the wormhole, but our readings indicate that it's operating within acceptable parameters. I strongly recommend that we proceed with the launch sequence for the first probe."
"What about the unmanned drone? Is it still functional?"
"Yes, Captain," confirmed Dr. Choam. "It's stationed on our landing pad, safely out of harm's way."
"Once the surveying probes have cleared the wormhole," Dr. Nazarov explained, "their automated guidance systems will course correct onto a proper trajectory for a sustained, low orbit of the second planet. At that point we will move to the third phase of the operation. The unmanned drone will shuttle the land rover through the wormhole and down to the surface of the planet to begin sampling its soil and plant life, if any."
"Hopefully," Dr. Choam interjected, beaming with excitement, "we'll be able to gather enough data between the probes and the rover to keep us busy for a month or two while we make the necessary repairs and upgrades to our equipment. If the planet proves to be as ideal as we think it is, the Coalition should be able to commence construction of a colonial outpost by the onset of the new year. It's all very exhilarating to think about."
"I share your enthusiasm, Doctor," said Jonathon with an equally radiant grin.
"Do we have your permission to launch the first probe?" Dr. Nazarov petitioned, sounding a little impatient, like a child waiting to open a long-awaited present.
"Well, all things considered it sounds as if it's safe to proceed with the operation. Go ahead and initiate the launch sequence."
"Now please be aware, Captain, that the probe will vanish briefly as it crosses the threshold of the wormhole. It must travel through the concealed spatial distortion, or tunnel, that is connecting our Solar System with the Polaris System. Once it is safely through we'll establish a video link."
"I'm starting the ten-second countdown sequence now."
Controlled bursts of yellow exhaust shot out of the side thrusters of one of the remaining probes as its engine test fired. Then came a spurt of energetic vibrations, like pre-show jitters as the probe's main fuel source ignited, releasing flickers of golden light between gaps in the launching platform and the cone-shaped main exhaust port that had kept the probe balanced upright. It was time for the small explorer to begin its journey. Lurching off its platform, the probe fired its maneuvering thrusters, adjusting its course to perfect alignment with an entry vector into the wormhole. And as the engine engaged at full burn, a flaring surge of exhaust sent the probe racing away and into the history books.
Iridescent flashes bounced across the wormhole as the probe penetrated its boundaries, disappearing into the darkened tunnel. The bizarre spatial distortion the probe traveled through was formed from exotic black matter that spiraled counterclockwise, twisting and churning against bolts of crimson energy that randomly shot through the tunnel. So violent were the forces in play that it appeared as if the fabric of space itself was on the verge of being torn apart. Yet the probe continued undaunted, passing through the eye of the perilous storm until it penetrated the wormhole's exit and popped back into normal space. Firing its maneuvering thrusters, the small voyager slowed its movements to a crawl in order to allow its optical lens to pan around and obtain a closer look at the new star system.
The static-interlaced video feed from the Polaris System started to come through on one of the lab's display screens, eliciting excited chatter from its audience.
"Astonishing," Dr. Nazarov exclaimed, his eyes immovable from the video feed. "Are you seeing this, Captain?"
"We certainly are, Doctor. We certainly are."
"The probe's systems are showing all-clear across the board," one of the scientists announced, barely able to take his eyes off the display screen long enough to check the probe's vitals.
"The wormhole also appears unaffected by the probe's passing," another scientist added. "Energy levels are continuing with a point-two degree of variance."
"Good," Dr. Choam replied. "Very good."
"Wayune, can we enhance the image to eliminate the static?" Dr. Nazarov asked.
"I'll try, Alek, but the intense radiation from Polaris may be difficult to filter. The shielding on the optical lens wasn't designed to handle these levels."
The image improved gradually, showing an amazing panorama of the Polaris System, despite the bursts of static that still came through on occasion—a minor annoyance at best to such a scientific milestone.
"Captain," interrupted Kate, "Admiral Breckard is complaining of technical problems with the video transmission. He says the relay from the probe has blacked out."
"The probe's signal is linked directly into the Hub," Dr. O'Neill interjected, turning partway around from his post. "So whatever technical difficulties High Command is having must be originating at their end, otherwise we would have lost the signal as well."
"Inform the admiral that he'll need to call in one of his engineers to diagnose the problem," Jonathon advised.
The probe's camera continued to rotate, relaying detailed views of Polaris, which was indeed exceptionally close to the wormhole. Then vistas of the first planet came on, orbiting the guiding star a little ways off in the distance, thereby forcing the probe to increase magnification. Upon closer examination the planet appeared to be a twin of Mercury—hot, barren, riddled with craters.
Igniting its engine once again, the probe fought against the star's strong gravitational pull. Away it crept into the system, struggling to distance itself from the fiery giant. And as the journey continued, the camera zoomed in toward the second planet, a mere speck in the distance. But that speck soon became a breathtaking spectacle, a bluish-green world with sprawling, discernable landmasses and swirling white clouds. The imagery was so peaceful, so alluring, yet it became gradually more astonishing upon closer examination. There, peeking out from beneath the clouds, were sporadically clustered patterns of lights, suggesting that intelligent life resided planetside. An array of large objects was also discovered in orbit around the planet, as if it had a natural ring. But further scrutiny showed the objects to be moving and in unnatural ways. They were enigmatic and would remain that way since the probe's powerful lens had reached the limit of its abilities.
Polaris continued to tug at the visiting piece of technology, which limped toward the second planet, expending precious fuel.
"Unbelievable," Dr. Nazarov exclaimed as the chatter in the room became louder. Though he was frustrated with the probe's diminished speed, he was still impressed with the images it was capturing—scenery that almost made him forget about the damage to the test site. Almost.
"Please correct me if I'm wrong," Jonathon's voice called out, sounding surprised, "but it appears as if the Polaris System is inhabited by some sort of alien society."
"Fascinating, isn't it, Captain? We always believed we weren't alone in the universe, but never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate establishing first contact during this operation."
"Now hold on, Doctor. We don't have authorization to do any such thing. Try to position the probe in orbit around the first planet and do not send any transmissions toward the aliens. Refrain from any further activity until I contact High Command and determine how the operation should proceed. The prospect of colonizing the second planet is obviously out of the question now. However, I do recognize that we have a unique scientific opportunity here and I want to make sure we go about this in the right way."
"Very well, Captain," conceded Dr. Nazarov.
"I'm detecting strong fluctuations in the wormhole," one of the scientists called out, sounding nervous, on the fine edge of panic. "I think it's destabilizing!"
Dr. Nazarov scowled at the sensor readout that hovered in front of his eyes. "He's right," he muttered to Dr. Choam. "It's behaving erratically."
"The wormhole's close proximity to Polaris is most likely the source of the problem," Dr. Choam hypothesized. "Perhaps if we—"
"What's going on?" Jonathon demanded.
"There were some fluctuations detected, Captain, but the situation isn't as bad as my impetuous colleague implied," Dr. Nazarov asserted." I believe the internal sensors monitoring the wormhole's activity may have sustained damage, so I'm going to take them offline temporarily while I run a thorough diagnostic. The other sensor readings are within the predicted results, however, so there's no need for alarm. It's perfectly safe to continue."
Even though Dr. Nazarov's response should have calmed Jonathon's nerves, it didn't. But he couldn't terminate the operation on a gut feeling, especially since it would be impossible to initiate a second attempt at exploring the Polaris System until repairs had been made. So he made the logical decision to wait. "Very well, Doctor. I'll defer the judgment call to your expertise. But I ask that you exercise extreme caution. Now, please stand by."
Jonathon turned toward Kate and said, "Mute the communication link and contact High Command. Put the transmission through to my console."
Dr. Choam's face was more wrinkled than usual as he stared suspiciously at Dr. Nazarov. "What are you doing, Alek?" he whispered. "Those sensors are fine."
"I won't give him the opportunity to terminate the operation," Dr. Nazarov grumbled under his breath. "Between the repairs we already have to make and the political nonsense we'll have to suffer through, it will take months before we get another shot at this. I've waited long enough for this day as it is and I'm letting the operation continue. We can't imprudently disregard an opportunity to establish contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. We're on the verge of the greatest achievement of our careers, Wayune. And besides, there's a chance the wormhole will stabilize on its own."
"And if it doesn't? There are a lot of unknowns here, Alek. What if the quantum gate is damaged in the process? It could set us back even further. It's an awfully big risk—"
"That I'm willing to take."
Dr. Nazarov's face began to relax as he forcefully calmed himself, trying to avoid an emotional escalation of the discussion. "You've got to trust me on this, old friend. Please."
Dr. Choam nodded in agreement, although he averted his eyes in shame. While he didn't approve of Dr. Nazarov's decision, he selfishly chose to go along with it nonetheless. With his health deteriorating, he wasn't sure he'd still be alive to witness a second attempt at the experiment. And for the moment, at least, that provided him with enough justification for his morally questionable decision.
The soft, grandmotherly visage of Admiral Jane Hughes, the presiding officer over High Command, faded in on Jonathon's display console. She looked deceptively harmless for someone who held such a powerful position. But those who had crossed her knew differently.
"What do you have to report, Captain?" she asked in her usual polite tone.
"An unexpected situation has developed with the operation, Admiral. We—"
"Look at the probe's video feed!" Jensen shouted, inadvertently interrupting Jonathon's conversation.
"One moment, Admiral."
Placing the communication link with High Command on hold, Jonathon shot a suspicious gaze up at the probe's video relay. One of the objects circling the alien planet was approaching with tremendous speed.
"Lieutenant Hayes, restore the audio link with the research facility."
Sounds of excited conversations from within the research facility overflowed into the bridge once again.
"Dr. Nazarov, hold the probe where it is for a moment. Since we've intruded on their home territory, we'd better play it safe and let them make the next move."
"As you wish, Captain."
Static once again overlaid the probe's transmission, making it difficult to see the approaching object, yet no-one could avert their eyes from what they believed to be a technological wonder, a starship of an unknown alien intelligence. The large vessel was most peculiar in shape and design, with its midnight-blue surface shimmering sporadically against the light of Polaris, even nearly vanishing at times. It was unlike anything they had ever seen or imagined.
The static worsened.
"Wayune, can't we do anything about that static?" Dr. Nazarov complained, growing more irritated that the experiment seemed to be spiraling out of his control.
"The interference isn't coming from the star," Dr. Choam responded, having analyzed the sensor readings. "There's a distinct disruption pattern in the probe's optical system. I believe our transmission is deliberately being interrupted by whatever's approaching."
"I don't like this," Jonathon stated as his muscles tensed with nervous anticipation. Glancing at the alien vessel one more time, he heard a chorus of muffled whispers drift by him, almost through him, leaving a chilling, shuddersome sensation in their wake. He felt as if someone had sneaked up behind him, drawing uncomfortably close, so close in fact, that the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Snapping his head around, he glanced behind his chair but nobody was there. His command staff was all accounted for, sitting quiet, motionless, drawn to the enchanting video feed. So Jonathon turned his attention back to the overhead monitors, feeling even more uneasy. He sensed the imminent danger and his premonitions had never been wrong before. Never!
"Turn the probe around and bring it back through the wormhole," he ordered, almost yelled.
"Captain, please," Dr. Nazarov objected. "Let's refrain from making any rash decisions. The aliens may simply be trying to initiate contact. There's no reason to overreact."
At that moment, a bright flash of light enveloped the display terminals, followed by uninterrupted static.
"What just happened?" Jonathon demanded. The uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach began to swell, providing him with the answer to his question before anyone else could respond.
"We've lost contact with the probe," Dr. Choam replied, his head sagging in disappointment.
"Please tell me that it's due to technical problems."
"It's highly probable the probe experienced a technical failure," Dr. Nazarov replied. He then glanced at Dr. Choam, who looked uncharacteristically perplexed at the current status of the operation.
Though he had seen eye to eye with his colleague on most occasions, Dr. Choam had found himself in an uncomfortable position. There was simply too much at stake for him to continue to go along with Dr. Nazarov's charade. And so, with a deep exhale of disappointment, he looked up at Jonathon's image and confessed. "Captain, I detected a significant energy spike before the transmission terminated. I believe the probe was destroyed and I strongly recommend we terminate—"
"We don't know anything for certain at this point, Captain," Dr. Nazarov argued sharply, seeking to put an end to any further discussion of aborting the operation. "It's imperative that we power up the second probe and verify the situation. We don't want to foolishly waste this unprecedented opportunity."
"No, Doctor," Jonathon rebutted. "What we need to do is close that wormhole. At this point it poses a grave security risk. Now shut it down!"
"Captain, you can't be serious. If we abort now we won't be able to—"
"I'm detecting strong vibrations from within the quantum gate," one of the scientists cautioned. "Something's wrong with the wormhole."
"You've got to do as he says, Alek," Dr. Choam pleaded, grabbing his supervisor, his friend by the arm. "There will be other opportunities."
"Shut it down now, Doctor, before I place you under arrest," demanded Jonathon. Every nerve in his body was taut as if he sensed that his life was in peril.
With their pulse rifles in hand, two soldiers standing near the right wall began advancing on Dr. Nazarov's central location. The stubborn scientist finally nodded in agreement, having reluctantly been forced to his senses. He attempted to initiate the shutdown sequence, but it was too late.
From within the quantum gate, chaotic ripples stormed across the fluid boundaries of the wormhole, followed by increasingly frequent pulses of light. The ground had come alive as well, shuddering with one seismic tremor after another. Suddenly, the wormhole's opening in the Polaris System started to shift, bouncing ever closer to Polaris before...
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