Chief Petty Officer Franklin Dorithy’s eyes darted nervously back and forth, scanning the faces of the four individuals standing in front of him. A look of complete bewilderment shrouded the countenance of the engineering noncom, and he was unable to prevent his body from trembling slightly. After several visual sweeps, his gaze came to rest on the visage of the Space Command senior officer. “Wha— wha— what do you mean, I’ve just soared over the rainbow?” His voice quivered as the words spilled from his lips. Just seconds earlier he had been indifferently examining a large booth in a severely damaged section of a Denubbewa warship at the reclamation yard that orbited Lorense-Four in the G.A.’s Region Two. Now, a senior officer in Space Command— one with an unassailable reputation— was telling him he was standing in a ship thousands of light-years away in Region Three. “What rainbow are you talking about, Commander?”
“It was a metaphor, Chief,” Commander Christa Carver replied to the engineering noncom. A hint of a smile appeared on her face as she said, “It’s a quotation from a children’s book written on Earth several centuries ago. What do you know about the booth you were examining?”
“Know? Uh, all I know for sure is that I was tasked with preparing a brief report after I evaluated its general physical condition. I’ve been doing this for weeks now, and I guess I’ve been pegged as the most experienced noncom performing the booth evaluations. Every time one of these units, or any part of a unit, has been found in the wreckage being brought to Lorense-Four, I’m the one sent out to prepare the report. Then the booth and all attached apparatus are immediately taken to the Lorense-Three Shipyard. I have no idea what happens to them after they leave here.”
“Do you know the booth’s purpose?”
“Its purpose? The booth? Uh— well— some of the other chiefs at the yard have speculated about it, but no one really knows for sure what it is or why they seem to be so important to Admiral Plimley. Some of the chiefs think it’s how the cyborgs aboard a ship communicate with cyborgs on other ships since every Denubbewa warship seems to have at least one of these booths, and the motherships appear to have about a dozen. We can’t be entirely sure about that last part, ma’am, because your taskforce has clobbered them so hard it’s often difficult to know where one ship ends in the rubble and the next begins.”
“Chief, there’s no way to keep you from learning the truth now, so I’m not going to try. However, you must understand that this information is an order of magnitude above top secret. If you reveal any part of what I tell you now, you will probably spend the rest of your life in an isolation jail cell on Saquer Major. Here’s why I said…”
“Uh, excuse me for interrupting, Commander, but I think I’d rather not know. I don’t wish to know something so secret that it could result in my spending the rest of my life in a penal colony if I happened to talk in my sleep.”
“It’s too late, Chief. I can’t prevent you from learning or deducing the truth about what just happened. That booth is a Personnel Cosmic Jump Gate.”
“Excuse me, ma’am? A cosmic what?”
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘wormhole.’ This booth generates an artificial wormhole and sends whoever or whatever is in the booth to an identical booth in a remote location. Apparently, the booth you were examining in that damaged ship had the address of this booth as its last transportation destination.”
As Christa spoke to CPO Dorithy, her Executive Officer and a Marine corporal—the only other Terrans in the small group—had moved to flank the chief petty officer slightly. They were positioned far enough in front of Christa that she could see them in her peripheral vision, so she saw their jaws drop and their facial expressions change to reflect their apparent shock. But Christa continued to stare directly at the chief.
CPO Dorithy grinned slightly and said in an even more nervous voice, “This is a joke, right, Commander? I mean, wormholes are just theoretical nonsense. Uh, aren’t they?”
“No joke, Chief. When you arrived you commented on the condition of this room. I believe you said it looked like a disaster scene before but now looks brand new. There’s a very good reason for that: It’s because this isn’t the same room you were in at Lorense-Four, and this ship is fairly new and undamaged. At Lorense-Four, the booth you were examining was located in a severely damaged ship that was open to space. You needed an EVA suit to be there. As you see, that isn’t required in here.”
Dorithy’s nervous grin had slowly melted from his face as Christa spoke, and now he began to hyperventilate. “I don’t understand. This isn’t supposed to be possible. Uh, maybe the booth has done something to me, or maybe I’ve hit my head and I’m unconscious.”
“You’re not unconscious, Chief, but the booth has definitely done something to you. It has sent you thousands of light-years from where you were minutes ago.”
“What you say is just not possible, Commander,” Dorithy said insistently.
“Why do you suppose they’ve had you writing a condition evaluation report every time one of these booths has been found? And why do they immediately send the booth and its attached support equipment to the shipyard? Chief, you’ve stumbled onto the most secret of secrets in Space Command. You can never discuss this with anyone. Not even if anyone asks what happened to you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dorithy said, his face now reflecting the dread he felt about possibly living out the remainder of his life in a penal facility.
“That goes for everyone else here as well,” Christa said to the three members of her original group. “XO, Corporal, and Lucky, you must never mention this incident to anyone. If you do, you could be subject to the same penalties I’ve just recounted to Chief Dorithy. Understand?”
“Aye, Captain,” XO Mollago said.
“Aye, Captain,” the Marine corporal echoed.
“Of course, Captain,” Lucky, the SCI cyborg, muttered.
“I knew the Denubbewa had this capability,” Christa said, “but I didn’t know what the equipment looked like. If I had, I would never have allowed anyone to enter this room.”
“But— but— how could this happen?” the engineering CPO asked. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and I followed the same procedure I’ve been following for weeks. I didn’t do anything in the booth to initiate a wormhole process.”
“You said you turned on the light to examine the booth?”
“If it wasn’t merely a light switch, that could have triggered the equipment. We had also activated the internal light just before you appeared. We used the switch on the outside of the booth or we might now be standing in a damaged Denubbewa warship at Lorense-Four— without EVA suits.”
Dorithy just stood there with a strange expression on his face. His mouth was partly open and his lips moved slightly as he again reviewed the events of the last few minutes in his mind. Finally, he said aloud, “What do I do now, Commander? How do I get back to Lorense-Four?”
“You don’t. At least not right away. To begin with, we don’t know how to operate this equipment. Second, we don’t even know if it’s working properly. It might malfunction. It would be too dangerous to use it until it’s been tested.”
“But it just brought me here. We know it works.” His face filled with fear as he said, “Commander, I’ll be charged with being AWOL if I don’t return. I’ve had a spotless record until now.”
“We know it works when sending someone from Lorense-Four to this location. But it may not work in the opposite direction. You could be sent to some other location, one that might be a crushed booth in the wreck of a Denubbewa warship, or you might simply be lost forever. I can’t allow anyone to use this equipment until Cosmic Jump Gate travel has been approved by Quesann and this booth has been tested and verified safe to use. I’m afraid you’re stuck out here at the extreme end of Region Three with the rest of us until we can sort this out. I’ll send a report to Quesann regarding this incident as soon as we return to the Koshi, but you’ll probably be reported missing until they get my report. That will take almost a month, given the great distance, but your record will be amended as soon as they hear from me. I promise that you won’t be penalized for being AWOL. Until you can begin the trip back to Quesann, you’ll be assigned work either on this ship or aboard the Koshi.”
Turning to Mollago, Christa said, “XO, I need you to immediately organize a search for other CJ Gate booths. If the chief is right, we might have a dozen— or even more— on this ship. Should any be found, I want two Marines posted inside the room. No one other than assigned guards is to be allowed into the room or any of the other Gate rooms unless I specifically order it. And the guards must confirm the identity and access privileges of the person seeking entry before allowing anyone in. We must be sure that every possible booth location aboard this ship has been searched.”
“Aye, Captain. I’ll get on it right away.”
“That may not be necessary, ma’am,” CPO Dorithy said. “We only speculated that there might be more than one Gate per ship. We believed only Denubbewa motherships might have multiple booths.”
“This is a Denubbewa mothership, Chief. Correction, a former Denubbewa mothership. We were able to commandeer seven motherships without damaging them, and they have now been designated as our first bases in Region Three.”
“This is a mothership?” Dorithy said loudly. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Commander, there may be cyborgs hiding aboard this ship.”
“Relax, Chief. It’s been thoroughly searched and declared free of cyborgs, but we haven’t been searching for booths. Corporal Firth,” Christa said to the Marine from her original group, “I want you to remain inside this room until relieved. We’re heading back to the Koshi. No one is to be allowed to enter this room unless I’ve ordered it and you reconfirm it with me. Understand?”
“XO, Chief, Lucky, we’re heading back to the ship now.”
As the group turned to leave the room, Dorithy got a good look at Lucky for the first time.
“Oh my God, it’s a Denubbewa!” he exclaimed loudly as he stopped dead in his tracks. Being an engineer, he had immediately realized that Lucky was encased in prosthetic skin once he took a good look.
“He’s a cyborg, but he’s working for Space Command.”
“Working for us, Commander? A cyborg— working for us? Incredible! Uh, are there any more here, ma’am?”
“There are quite a few at Lorense-Three, but that’s top secret as well.”
“I guess it’s still a secret because I haven’t heard about it, although I heard there were strange things going on at the shipyard.”
“What kind of strange things, Chief?”
“Uh, just that one of our largest enclosed docks was off limits to practically everyone, but that there were yard shuttles coming from and going to it continually.”
“What’s unusual about that?”
“All yard personnel have a Top Secret clearance. We’ve never had our access restricted with any of the enclosed docks unless there was something going on that was way above our pay grade.”
“Keep that to yourself also, Chief. Although the crew of the Koshi knows much more than the yard crews at either Lorense-Three or Lorense-Four, all of this has to be kept quiet until it’s time to reveal it to the public.”
“Aye, Captain. I’ll never mention it again— unless ordered to do so by a senior officer.”
“Not even then, Chief,” Christa said. “Not until the information has been released publicly. Until then, if a senior officer demands the information, you refer him or her to Admiral Carver. Okay, men, let’s get to the Koshi.”
* * *
“Captain, a Priority-One message has just arrived,” Gavin heard via his implanted Cranial Transducer after touching his Space Command ring to acknowledge the page. He continued walking towards his quarters as he said, “Send it to my queue, Chief.”
“Already there, sir.”
“Acknowledged. Gavin out.”
As Gavin entered his quarters aboard the battleship Ares, he walked directly to his office and activated the computer terminal there. Since it was a Priority-One message, he had to submit to a retinal scan before he could open it. The message had been sent by Commander Christa Carver, and Gavin was immediately concerned because a Priority-One message from a ship’s senior officer usually meant severe problems or threats to the safety of a ship or crew. He tapped the contact point to play the message, and Christa’s image appeared on the vid monitor.
“Captain, it’s urgent that we meet to discuss something of vital importance to the G.A. and Space Command,” the image of Commander Christa Carver said. “It’s not something I feel comfortable mentioning in a communication— not even a Priority-One message. I will say that were it within my power to do so, I would immediately dispatch a CPS-16 with three full platoons of Marines— representing a total force of not less than one hundred twenty— to each of the seven new bases in Region Three. That would still leave the Ares with a full company of Marines for shipboard duties, given the extremely large force presently aboard your battleship. Please respond as quickly as possible.
“Christa Marie Carver, Commander, Captain of the GSC Scout-Destroyer Koshi. End of message.”
Gavin replayed the message again, twice, and then thought about the possible dangers that might be facing the G.A. He had known Admiral Carver and her two sisters, both of whom were clones, for decades. All three women were among the best and brightest of all the officers who had ever worn a Space Command or Space Marine uniform. None were prone to hysteria, so if Christa reported the situation to be of such importance that it couldn’t be mentioned in a Priority-One message, it had to be something so critical that he couldn’t even consider ignoring her advice regarding the deployment of additional Marine support to the seven bases.
Gavin touched his Space Command ring to establish a carrier signal, then said, “Commander Eliza Carver.” A couple of seconds later he heard “Carver here, sir,” via his implanted CT. It was the second watch so Eliza was on the bridge, performing her duties as Watch Commander. She would be the only one who could hear his instructions.
“Eliza, go into my office and contact Major Endicott. Have him assign three full platoons of Marines, for a total complement of at least one hundred twenty, to each of six CPS-16s for immediate deployment to six of the new space stations. Then have our navigator plot a course to the seventh station, the one where Christa was assigned. As soon as the six CPS-16s are ready to deploy, halt the ship and allow them to depart. Then I want to proceed to the new base where Christa is stationed with all possible speed. Send an announcement to all other ships to remain here and continue to guard the Denubbewa wreckage until the reclamation vessels have removed all of it and departed for Lorense-Four or until they receive new orders.”
“Armament and special equipment for the Marine deployment, sir?”
“Personal armor and standard-issue weapons. The Scout-Destroyer posted to each base will have whatever extra they might need.”
“Aye, Captain. Are there any special orders for Endicott or the CPS-16 captains?”
“The CPS-16s are each to proceed to their designated base with all possible haste. I’ll fill you in when I know more, Eliza.”
Captain Gavin leaned back in his office chair while staring at the Priority-One logo that was still displayed on the vid monitor. The only thing he could imagine was that Christa had learned of a plot by the Denubbewa to recover the seven motherships. But how had she learned of it before a recovery mission had been attempted? Or had it already been attempted? No, she would have reported that. He reached out and tapped the contact point on the keyboard that would allow him to record a response to her Priority-One message.
“Priority-One message to Commander Christa Marie Carver, Captain of the GSC Koshi.
“I’ve given orders that six CPS-16s, each carrying several full platoons of Marines with armor and light weapons, deploy as soon as possible to each of the other new space stations. The Ares will be underway to your location within the hour.
“Lawrence Frederick Gavin, Captain, Captain of the GSC Battleship Ares. End of message.”
The new space station currently under command of Commander Christa Carver was roughly one hundred fifty light-years from the present position of the Ares. Gavin estimated that the communication would take about forty-eight hours to reach the Koshi. Travel time to the station at Marc-One would be about three days and seventeen hours. Without more information, there was nothing else to be done after ordering the com chief to transmit the recorded message, so Gavin shrugged, stood up, and left the office in his quarters. Dinner was still waiting so he walked to his dining room and took his customary seat at the table. His steward saw him enter the dining room via the small closed-circuit monitor in the kitchen and immediately brought out the appetizer and a cup of steaming coffee. The message from Christa would weigh heavily on Gavin’s mind throughout dinner and afterwards.
* * *
“Any word about that missing engineering noncom, Loretta?” Jenetta asked Admiral Plimley during a closed session of the Admiralty Board. They were meeting in Jenetta’s office, and only the Admirals and the Jumakas were present.
“Not a whisper, Jen,” Plimley said. “We don’t know if he went AWOL, got caught up in trash being moved, or— perhaps something else happened.”
“It’s the ‘something else’ that bothers me most. You said he was preparing a condition report on one of the Gate booths, and they found the unit powered up when they went looking for him at the end of the watch. If he somehow activated it, he could be anywhere in the galaxy. He might even be in another galaxy. I’ve been thinking about having one of our cyborgs come take a look at it to see if he can determine where our CPO might be.”
“We haven’t moved that Personnel CJ Gate yet because of the ongoing investigation, so if we do as you suggest, the genie will be out of the bottle. Someone is bound to see the cyborg at Lorense-Four. But— perhaps it is time to let staff with a Top Secret clearance or above know about their presence at Lorense-Three. We don’t have to tell them what the booth does. Someone is bound to spread that secret soon anyway. We’ve managed to keep all this somewhat secret so far with threats of long imprisonment, but I don’t know how much longer we can keep it bottled up, even with that threat.”
“Someone has to have talked about seeing cyborgs at Lorense-Three by now. And there was the cyborg that Roger’s people reprogrammed to perform as an SCI undercover agent for us. I heard he was allowed to roam around the halls of the SCI complex on Quesann at will. Hundreds of people had to have seen him.”
“Everyone at SCI was ordered to never talk about it,” Admiral Bradlee said.
“But we know that eventually someone will talk unless we keep them all sequestered and isolated,” Admiral Woo said. “Imagine how many top secrets have been revealed during pillow talk between service members down through the ages.”
“You’re right, Lon,” Jenetta said. “And sooner or later someone is bound to mention it where someone without the proper security clearance can overhear. Loretta, if we can’t bring a cyborg in, how about having some of your students examine the Personnel CJ Gate to see what they can learn.”
“Students? Are you referring to those highly-trained Space Command scientists who are working with Sywasock?”
“Yes. You’ve said they’ve been learning everything possible about the Denubbewa booths so they can design a new Personnel CJ Gate booth for Space Command use. This might be a good exercise for them. Let’s put them to the test and see if they can figure out where our engineering noncom went, or was sent. We’ll get to see how well they understand the technology and the processes they’ve been studying, and they’ll get a little hands-on experience.”
“They already have hands-on experience. All of the recovered CJ Gate booths have been brought to Lorense-Three for them to evaluate, with the exception of the one being evaluated by the missing noncom. So far, we’ve been able to rebuild more than a dozen using parts from damaged units that are beyond repair.”
“Is that safe, Loretta?” Admiral Burke asked.
“Yes, Raymond. For testing, we’re using an extremely weak power supply that Sywasock says should barely be adequate to send someone a billion kilometers. That’s less than the distance from Earth to Saturn at their closest conjunction.”
“That’s still a considerable distance,” Admiral Ahmed said.
“It’s enough for very limited travel within this solar system, but no farther. When we’re ready to test the first Gate, I want to send some biological material to this base from Lorense-Three. Once we can do that without any problems, we’ll be ready to experiment with live specimens.”
“Live specimens?” Admiral Yuthkotl echoed.
“Not sentient beings, Lesbolh,” Admiral Plimley said. “Initially, it will be laboratory creatures, such as single-cell organisms only visible under a microscope, then insects, and then small rodents once the initial tests prove successful. We’re going to make sure the transfer process is perfected before we attempt to send a sentient lifeform.”
“Do you have any projected date for the first Gate attempts, Loretta?” Jenetta asked.
“We’re hoping to have several of the repaired Gates ready for transfer testing within thirty days. The first of the newly designed Gates might be ready for testing in as soon as— six months. They’ll be powered by a redesigned power unit.”
“What benefit is there to redesigning a proven product?” Admiral Bradlee asked.
“We believe the power unit used by the Denubbewa is far larger than necessary— not in terms of power but in size. We can produce the same level of stable power with a unit that’s a tenth the size of the Locculo-designed unit. Sywasock was impressed when he saw the engineering stats. He says it represents a tremendous step forward over the one used by the original builders of the CJ Gates. Our new booth, with all of its support apparatus, will still accommodate three travelers at once, but it will be one-third the size of the Denubbewa booths overall. Rigorous testing will be required before we attempt to actually send a person in the newly designed Gates. One mistake and that person might be lost to us forever, without us even knowing what happened to him— or her.”
* * *
“Admiral,” Jenetta heard her aide say excitedly via the intercom channel on her desk viewpad the next day, “a Level-Five alert has just been broadcast on all secure military information channels. It warns that Lorense-Four has been invaded by hostile forces.”
Usually, her aide just paged her with a single beep on the viewpad when she wanted to get Jenetta’s attention. But Jenetta was alone in her office and this announcement certainly had the desired effect of getting her immediate attention.
Jenetta tapped the contact spot that would initiate two-way communication capability and said, “Has this been confirmed by Quesann Central Command?”
“The announcement message was made by Admiral Holt, personally. He was connected with all other broadcast channels to ensure the emergency warning about the invasion went out to all Space Command personnel.”