“No longer are laser guns the stuff of Hollywood and Strategic Defense Initiative fantasy. The Pentagon inside of a decade could be armed with such a beam weapon….”
— Oakland Tribune, October 19, 2003
“You are the one, Neo.”
— The Matrix
Professor Paula J. Lynch plopped her duffel bag on the steel deck and waited. The space station’s airlock wheezed open in slow motion.
“Welcome to Delta Echo, Dr. Lynch. Haven’t seen you since Antarctica,” the red-haired, freckle-faced Air Force officer greeted her.
Paula broke into a radiant grin. “Captain Raglan. Ted. How’d you land this cushy job?”
“I requested off-world duty after the AMANDA mission,” he said. “My first time in space. And you?”
“NASA Consultant. Your weapons problem.”
Captain Raglan sealed the airlock with the manual override. “We’ve got odd power outages, too,” he said. “Lighting, computers, airtight hatches. Started right after the first laser shot.”
“There should be a package here for me.”
“From Colonel Reichart. Our C.O.” Ted handed over a slim titanium-acrylic attache case. “The lock responds to your spoken ultra-Q password. Come on, I’ll show you to your quarters.”
“No need. 8-C, Outer Ring. I’m a regular.”
“The Colonel is expecting you.”
“0900 hours tomorrow. What’s the scuttlebutt, Ted?”
“Weapons guys have all clammed up.”
Dr. Lynch engaged the deadbolt, tapped the light switch. Nothing. “Damn.” Emergency lighting kicked in with an inconstant glow.
Paula stowed her gear in the cramped locker. She donned a heavy blue NASA sweater, undid her ponytail, and shook her long auburn tresses loose. Her flight boots were kicked into a corner and she slipped bare feet into scuffed, brown penny loafers. “Okay, let’s kick some ass.”
The attache case’s lock was a shiny, featureless black square which glinted in the tenebrous light. “Spook Central,” Paula whispered. The lock disintegrated in a shower of glittering particles.
She read and reread the single-spaced typewritten sheet through wire-framed reading glasses perched on her nose. An unbelieving frown creased her brow. “You do have a problem, Colonel Reichart.”
She booted up her laptop. A flood of geometric shapes inundated the screen. She blinked, scrubbed her eyelids with two closed fists. “Knock it off. NASA tech report on laser weapon malfunction,” she demanded. The screen went black for several seconds before the information appeared.
“No apparent reason for laser failure or power outages,” Paula read.
A faint whisper from the audio as the unit shut down.
Morning. 0900 hours:
Air Force Colonel William Reichart, a tall black man with a shaved scalp and trim graying mustache, rose from his desk and greeted Paula with a firm handshake. “Dr. Lynch, good to see you. Your quarters okay?”
“Barely. Light’s screwed up. My computer screen, too. Circles, squares, and triangles in rainbow colors. Annoying as hell. There was some weird faint vocalization. Like speech.”
“I must have dreamed it,” Paula admitted. “I was pretty bushed.”
Hint of a smile from Reichart. “So even a Nobel Prize winner can have an overactive imagination.”
She gave him a tired grin. “I’m not so sure. Got any coffee?”
Reichart filled a Stoneware cup from the Mr. Coffee next to his desk. “You drink it black, I recall.”
She inhaled a slug of the steaming brew, then another. “Wow. That’s almost nuclear. I’d forgotten how potent Delta Echo coffee was.”
“You’ll need it. We’re on a tight schedule. Gotta have some answers before I report to NASA and D.O.D. You’ve read my report.”
Paula gulped more coffee. “I’m a problem solver.”
“We’ll be taking a shuttle over to the satellite in about twenty minutes. Captain Raglan will drive.”
“Good man. I worked with Ted in Antarctica.”
* * *
“What can you show me?” Paula asked.
“This is a video chip of the first test firing. Target was a big rock in the asteroid belt.” Reichart pressed PLAY.
Paula shielded her eyes and turned away as an intense silvery column of light blistered the CRT screen. “Yikes! That could fry a few rods and cones.”
“There’s been no direct observation of the beam,” Reichart said. “This image has been bounced off of a series of new ultra-polarized mirrors to mute the brilliance and it’s still hot. One of our orbiting monitors recorded this. Its optics were burned out.”
“What do your Weapons folks say?”
He shrugged. “They don’t have a clue.”
The intercom beeped. “Capt. Raglan here. Shuttle’s ready.”
The airtight exit hatch required manual override. “Any electrical problems like this with your shuttles?” Paula asked.
Reichart gave a reluctant nod. “Same as on Delta Echo. Instrument display failures, lights, loss of communication. We had to manually control the steering jets twice.”
“Time is my enemy here, Dr. Lynch. Pressure from NASA and the Pentagon,” he said. “Beat North Korea, India, and Israel to an effective space laser weapon.”
“That’s why I’m here, sir. There should have been a tight activated photon-enhanced beam on each firing,” Paula said with a frustrated sigh. “Run me through the second shot, please.”
“All systems were in the green. Hit the switch, nothing happened. Two more tries, same result. No explanation.”
“We’re there,” Captain Raglan said. “Want the grand tour, Dr. Lynch?”
“Eight solar panels. They provide 200 watts of ionized solar energy. Newest hi-tech power source,” the officer explained as the shuttle orbited in a slow circle.
“Hmm,” Paula mused. She massaged her temples with fingertips, eyes squinted shut. “Standard CO2 laser enhanced by high energy photons colliding in a resonant cavity. A beam weapon of destructive capability never before seen in nature.”
“You got it,” Colonel Reichart affirmed. “The firing sequence should have been a no-brainer.”
Paula tapped on her laptop’s keyboard, stared in awe at the screen. “Jesus. This weapon’s beam could reach Mars. Perhaps Jupiter or Saturn, maybe further. Does the Pentagon know?”
“Not yet. I’m waiting on your report.”
Paula exhaled a sigh of exasperation. “You set me up for this little jaunt, Colonel, am I right?”
Reichart’s face darkened in a blush. “I’m in trouble here, Dr. Lynch. Pentagon and NASA up my ass every day, and you have EVA experience.”
Her gaze shot sparks. “Continue.”
“You’re the expert. Captain Raglan says you walk on water.”
Her glare faded to a forgiving grin. “Hmpf. Walk on water indeed. I’d sink faster than the Titanic. Figured you were in on it, Captain. Where’s my EVA gear?”
“Coming right up, Prof. Your COMM channel is voice activated.”
“I’ve got static, Ted.”
“Copy. Switching to backup channel. How now?”
“Another power glitch. I’m working on it. Colonel Reichart says you’re go to board the satellite.”
“Roger that. Ten meters, closing.”
“Steer clear of those solar panels. The ionic pulse could fry you but good.”
“Copy. Reaching handhold… Holy shit!”
“You okay. Dr. Lynch?” Colonel Reichart asked.
“Are you seeing this?”
Paula’s voice was tremulous, unbelieving. “The stars are gone.”
“I’ve got stars,” Captain Raglan said.
Paula touched the CO2 thrusters and backed off. “Damn. They’re back. Something concentrating over the satellite. Blocking…”
“You’re breaking up, Dr. Lynch. Abort EVA,” Colonel Reichart said. “Now.”
“There’s a voice. Say what…?”
You are the one.
She stared at the pale green walls and dark viewport. “Where am I?”
“Dr. Lynch? It’s Ted. Captain Raglan. You’re in the Delta Echo infirmary. You gave us a pretty good scare.”
“I heard a voice.”
“I was on the COMM line.”
“Different. Sounded synthesized.”
A young Hispanic physician was scanning spiky tracings on sheets of printout. “Alicia Hernandez, Professor Lynch. I’m concerned about these. Your EEG”
“Wager you my hazardous duty pay they’re abnormal.”
“No bet, Professor. There’s paroxysmal alpha-wave tracings suggesting an overstressed cerebral cortex. You were unconscious but with no delta wave activity. Were you dreaming?”
A vigorous head shake. “There was a voice. Not Ted’s.”
“You said the stars were gone,” Captain Raglan told her.
“You imagined a voice?” the physician asked.
Paula sat up and jabbed an accusing finger. “Dammit, stop trying to psychoanalyze me. It said I was the one.”
“Colonel Reichart wants you to rest,” Dr. Hernandez said. She held out two white tablets and a paper cup of water.
Paula batted them to the deck, then massaged her temples with fingertips. “No meds. Must stay alert. Something trying to…”
“You may have had a small stroke. We’ll be doing an MRI.”
Paula placed both hands over her ears and squinted her eyelids shut. “Just leave me alone, okay? Both of you.”
The infirmary lights failed all at once, leaving them in utter darkness.
The light source. Not natural. Killing us.
“I hear you,” Paula said.
She slid from the bed, tiptoed barefoot to the viewport.
“Where is she, Captain?” Dr. Hernandez asked.
A crash as Captain Raglan stumbled against an instrument cart. “Say what, Dr. Lynch? I can’t hear anything.” He groped in the darkness, found Paula’s arm.
“I’ve got her, Doctor. She’s staring out the viewport.”
Light expanded in the room as emergency power kicked in. Paula turned, looked around, baffled. “Ted? What happened?”
“You were babbling. Not making any sense,” Dr. Hernandez said as she dressed Dr. Lynch’s arm where the IV needle had pulled loose.
Paula sat on the edge of the bed, running fingers of both hands through tangled, moist locks. “My laptop.”
“Right here, Dr. Lynch,” Capt. Raglan said. “What are you looking for?”
“The answer.” An agitated toss of auburn curls. “Something important. My clothes, please.”
Quarters 8-C, Outer Ring:
Paula booted up her laptop. Swirling, multicolored geometric patterns as before. “Tell me, dammit,” she demanded.
You understand, echoed from the audio.
Paula exhaled a soft moan. “I don’t.”
You have the extraordinary cerebral capacity to communicate. We’ve tried the others. They don’t respond.
A high-pitched giggle. “You mean they’re Salieri to my Mozart? Oh, sorry. I’ve been a bit stressed. Let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Paula.”
We are a subatomic construct. A confluent particulate entity.
“So you’re a bunch of mixed-up quarks, leptons, neutrinos,” Paula retorted. “Subatomic particles. Dark matter?”
As you wish. Solid form is an alien concept.
“Well pardon the hell outta me. I like being a solid alien.”
The light source has annihilated billions of us.
A temporal artery throbbed. Paula massaged it with firm fingertips. “Okay, you’ve got my attention.”
You must deactivate the light source.
A sigh of annoyance. “You have stopped it.”
It remains a threat.
“You are the friggin’ threat here,” Paula screamed, an octave just short of high C.
Canceling the beam costs us billions more.
“I’m only a scientist. The military controls…”
We can create havoc.
A skeptical snort. “Hah. More half-assed outages?”
Our collective is concentrated now. Listen.
The intercom came to life with a raucous squawk. “Dr. Lynch. NASA just went black!” Captain Raglan yelled.
“Ted, there’s a problem. I could use some coffee here.”
The Captain poured fresh Delta Echo brew from a thermos. “I can get you something stronger, Dr. Lynch.”
“Not possible.” Paula swallowed a slug of the noxious concoction. “Aak! There goes my stomach lining.”
“So NASA went dark? But Delta Echo’s power is back on?” she asked.
“As of twenty minutes ago. Real sudden like. I don’t get it.”
“Seems they can be selective.”
A puzzled grimace. “Who? How can you know that?”
“It’s from an unusual, ah, alien source. Listen.”
Raglan viewed the silent multicolored geometric shapes on the laptop’s screen with a skeptical eye.
“Are you feeling okay, Dr. Lynch?”
“A voice spoke to me when I was EVA at the satellite.”
Ted gave his nose a dubious pinch. “Why hasn’t anyone else…?”
A puzzled grimace. “I’m the only one susceptible to confluent subatomic particle entity suggestion.”
Capt. Raglan sat cross-legged on the deck, staring at his hands. “You know I respect you, Dr. Lynch. But this is nuts.“
“Trust me on this one, Ted. Was I wrong in Antarctica?”
A sudden voice permeated Paula’s quarters.
Shut down the light source.
Ted’s head jerked up, eyes wide in panic. “I heard it!”
“Thank you, Captain. Guess I’m not a basket case after all.”
The intercom beeped. “Dr. Lynch, Colonel Reichart here. Power back on line at Delta Echo Station, but the outage has spread from NASA to all of Cape Canaveral.”
“I’ll get back to you, Colonel.”
“Neat trick. What are you bodiless freaks up to now?” Paula asked.
We can cancel electric power anywhere on your world.
Paula’s vigorous head shake sent curly auburn locks cascading down her cheeks. “That’s impossible. Only in movies like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. 1950s black-and-white sci-fi classic. A robot named Gort with a laser eye. You’d like that.”
“It figures. Sorry. Can’t help these little outbursts. They relax me.”
Now your NASA and Cape Canaveral.
Colonel Reichart’s voice pierced the quiet of Paula’s space. “Houston now… Oh holy shit! The whole Eastern seaboard. And India, North Korea, Israel. More…”
“You particulate freaks are seriously pissing me off,” Paula said.
It costs us billions to control the light source.
“They can shut down the weapon, Ted, but something is still bothering the heck out of them.” Paula squinted in concentration. Her sudden bilateral finger snap reverberated in the quietude of the stateroom. “So how many billions do you lose shutting down an electrical power plant?”
None. It is a natural source.
“There’s our impasse. Ted.” Paula said in a low, tremulous voice. “I may have an idea here. Detente. A compromise.”
“Do you think they’ll buy it?”
“This will be painful for you, but I must provide proof.” Paula said. Her explanation took several minutes. The response took seconds.
“Ted, get Colonel Reichart for me, please?”
The second asteroid target was atomized in the ultrabrilliant flare of the activated-photon enhanced laser.
“It’s a perfect shot. The Pentagon’s gonna be pleased as hell, Dr. Lynch” Colonel Reichart said as he gloated over the test data. “How did you manage this?”
She gave him an enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile. “They weren’t strong enough to stop the first shot. Then they mustered their forces. Now they are a menace.”
A puzzled grimace. “They who?”
“Trust me. Show me the planetary blackout situation.”
Colonel Reichart stared at the screen, unbelieving. “I’ll be damned. Electrical power restored. Here, India, Israel…”
“And North Korea. Good. Now you must dismantle the laser weapon.”
Reichart’s face turned a dark apoplectic hue. “I appreciate your efforts, Dr. Lynch, but that cannot happen. We have the ultimate weapon here. The Pentagon won’t…”
“We were both lucky. We could have been looking at permanent blackout, but I brokered a deal.”
“The laser works now.”
“I arranged it. A demonstration of their trust. Cost them big time.”
Paula laid a manila folder with TOP SECRET stamped in red on its cover on the Colonel’s desk. “You had best read this. The Pentagon has an authenticated copy. So do other countries working on laser weapons. It explains in concise detail the responsibilities of the involved parties.”
This type of resolution in your jargon is called a…
“Mexican standoff. A no-win scenario,” Paula explained.
And if the light source is reactivated?
“No coffee, no toast, no television or computers for us. But mess with our electricity without provocation and there won’t be enough of you left to turn off the juice.”
A hesitant pause.
“You guys should try solid form. Kick back, relax, chug a couple of brewskis. Eat some popcorn. Watch a good sci-fi flick. I recommend ‘Blade Runner’. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young…”
“No sense of humor,” Captain Raglan observed.
“You owe me a drink, Ted. Stoli on rocks would be nice.” *
About the Author: E.S. Strout has been published in small-press print magazines “Crossroads”, “Lovecraft’s Mystery Magazine”, “Fading Shadows”, “Mad Scientist”, and “Millennium Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine”. His stories have also appeared in the Internet publications “Jackhammer”, “Beyond s-f”, “Millennium SF&F”, and “Demensions”. E.S. Strout is on the faculty of the U.C. Irvine Medical Center, where he teaches skin pathology to dermatology residents.
(c) 2004 E.S. Strout firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago’s body hosts Mr. Demodex — a pet, a parasite, a lifelong skin, and an “I’m hearing that voice again” irritant.
(c) 2004 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com/