Walter Ignatius searched across the top of a cluttered workbench in the third-floor loft of his lab in an old section of Boulder, Colorado. “Where is it?” he muttered tossing test leads aside while rifling through the pile of wires on the workbench.
“Ah! Found you. See Francine; persistence always pays off,” he said to the gray parrot perched across from bench.
Walter connected the final lead supplying power to patch panel holding one side of the quantum entangled node. The other node sat in an old silver mine a few miles outside of the city. Getting access to it took way too much time, but he needed something close yet wholly cut off from any electromagnetic influences.
The device itself was simple. But in its middle was a special chip holding a very tiny piece of gadolinium hardly more than a hundred atoms wide. That sliver of material entangled with its pair in a similar setup in the mine. For the last hundred years, quantum entanglement’s only useful communications feature were encrypting messages with entangled photons. Soon after, in 2017 the dreaded Chinese tested the first successful encryption with an entangled beam of light shot at a satellite. Walter believed the next step was entangling a substantial piece of material that could communicate with it’s paired node no matter where that node is. Instant contact whether buried under a mountain, or in a sub beneath the deepest sea, or on a probe at the edge of the solar system. Getting this to work would create instant communications from vast distances.
“Ok Francine, let’s crank this baby up,” he said as he turned on the power.
“Crank her up baby,” squawked Francine.
A voice came from the speaker, “I hear Francine!”
“Well that sounds a lot better than Alexander Graham Bell’s first words over the telephone,” Walter said laughing into the microphone. “How’s the EM monitoring look?”
“Flat as a pancake. No sign of EM radiation of any kind. We are talking without radio,” said the voice.
“Wonderful Bobby. Shut it all down and bring it back to the lab. We’re going to celebrate!”
It sat for unknowable ages in darkness. Static and waiting. Atoms had long ceased to move about, and the vacuum was still.
It stirred at the first flicker of movement. A lone hydrogen atom had started to move with a sympathetic quantum link to some unknown universe outside its own. Then stillness. In a while, multiple atoms vibrated, moving with songs of information long forgotten, songs that shifted it up through levels of awareness. Wakening. Hungering.
It reached towards the link and peered into the other universe, but the link closed leaving it waiting, but ready to leap.
Zalkotal woke to alarms sounding in his head. The lights in his chamber deep in the crust of the planet increased as his awareness flowed back in. He tensed and leaped from his pedestal as he realized this alarm was the most serious. “They opened the void!” he chirped out loud, the sound of his voice echoing off the polished rock walls of his chamber. When I last walked among them, they were still playing with steam. How could this be, he thought as his mind called out to gather data from around the world. Then he saw the pinpoints up and along the mountains to his far north. He resisted the urge to fly there immediately in favor of digesting the events of the last three hundred years. The one time centuries before that he entered unprepared had caused a disastrous scene that he did not wish to repeat.
It sat upon all the nodes and the AI in the lab having wormed slowly out into the new universe feeding on the information and growing stronger. Probing the AI and it’s connections out into this alive, new world it spread itself stealthily and adapted to the new surroundings.
“Bobby, those nodes need to be packed today! I’m driving them to Fort Riley in the morning.
“Ok boss, but why don’t you just fly? That’s a long and boring trip across the prairie,” said Bobby.
“I hate to fly,” replied Walter.
“I hate to fly,” squeaked Francine from the top of a shelf.
“Oh shut up you silly bird, you love to fly,” said Walter with irritation in his voice.
“Shut it. I hate to fly.”
“You have your tickets to Brownsville?” asked Walter.
“In my tablet. I’m so pumped about going to Grissom City. I’ve never even been able to afford a ticket to a quick orbital ride let alone a mooncation. Getting these nodes installed and working on the moon will be a great test for the Mars project.”
The void searched the AI and realized that they were spreading it around and off the planet. It watched and learned, looking for ways to metastasize into this new universe so that it could start feeding in earnest.
Months later Mike Cotter bounded his way down the brightly lit tunnel in the low gravity of the moon. Transport carts zipped back and forth on the side rails, but he was in too black a mood to take a vehicle. Mike kept replaying the call from Harlan Brock over and over in his mind. “Mike, the Mars project is still a go, but you aren’t going. With this new comms gizmo, we can remote workers in with no lag time at all. Just like running a bot on the moon. Hell, you could even run the whole project earthside in real time. We just can’t afford to scale up a bunch of workers at Mars. The supply chain is still too weak and too long.” said Brock.
“But Harlan,” Mike protested “you need key men on the site to see what the sensors and cameras don’t always see. Sometimes you have to back away and look at the project from a higher view, and remoting tends to focus on the details.” said Mike.
“Mike, this is a business decision. We can’t afford overruns right now. The decision is final. Look, I know how much it means to you to be out there doing this work. Stay on the moon if you want.”
Mike could feel his anger turning into a cold chunk of lead in his gut. It will be years now until I get to Mars. If I ever get there, he thought to himself. Years in space isn’t kind to the body. When Harlan Brock the CEO of Brock & Engle the biggest construction and engineering firm in the world hired him, he promised Mike a shot at Mars. In the six years that he’d been in charge of B&E’s lunar projects, Mike felt that he had proven himself and guaranteed his position on the Mars project.
As he was thinking this, he saw the door to the B&E Lunar Materials Lab up ahead. He had an appointment with Ed Davenport the head of R&D for lunar materials research. Even on earth, the big firms all had materials R&D divisions to find newer, better and cheaper ways to build massive projects. That technology edge was often all that separated a winning bid from a loser. B&E lunar construction methods were the standard everyone else follows. Now he had Ed working to adapt those to Martian conditions and materials.
Sensing Mikes security implant, the door opened for him, and he entered the reception area to find Ed sitting with two cups of coffee on the table. Mike had known Edwin Davenport for twelve years ever since he stole him out from under Axiom Construction during their big fusion build out in South America. Ed followed Mike to B&E. Ed was a small fat man, made thicker by the lead overcoat he wore everywhere earning him the nickname, “lead bottom” from his team. “Morning Ed, what’s new on the Mars simulations?” Mike asked.
Ed handed Mike the cup of coffee while squinting up at him. “What’s wrong Mike? I can see it on your face.”, he said.
“It’s this damn quantum radio shit,” said Mike. “Now that we can communicate across vast distances with no lag time, the bean counters want to reduce the staff for the Mars project. Harlan Brock just told me I’m not going to Mars. He said I could even come back to earth to manage the project from there. All the bot drivers will be on earth.”
“No shit? It never occurred to me that the bot drivers could be back on earth”, said Ed. “I guess I won’t be going either then?”
“Afraid not,” said Mike. “I guess you can stop wearing the lead suit now.”
“I suppose so,” said Ed. “It only helps with the leg and back atrophy. Most people don’t even bother.”
Both men stood staring at the floor for a few minutes. Both had lifelong dreams of living on the moon and later Mars. Particularly Ed and his wife Maggie who was his assistant in the lab. “Keep this between you and Maggie for now,” said Mike. “I know people have been jostling for a shot to be on the Mars project, and I don’t want bad morale or worse yet, some of them quit. Take me on in and show me the latest results.”
Ed led the way through a set of doors to a large freight elevator. Inside he pushed the only other button labeled “Down.” The elevator was a little fast, and with the lessened gravity, Mike had to hold on to the side rail as his body started to lurch up. Ed, due to his lead suit was unaffected. The elevator took 10 seconds to drop down over a hundred feet below the surface of the moon. The elevator doors opened out to a vast mined out cavern with massive pillars of unmined rock every hundred feet or so in every direction for over a hundred yards. A decade ago this was one of the largest underground mines on the moon, but now it made up only about ten percent of all of Grissom City’s square footage. Now there were much more and larger ones stuffed with manufacturing, agro facilities, and residences in cities and bases across the moon. Twenty feet to the left was a tall, gangly, red-headed woman in a bot suit next to a much larger machine that was mimicking her movements.
Ed and Mike walked up beside the woman as the machine she was operating dropped a tool on the floor with a clang. “Dammit Ed, I told you not to sneak up on me while I’m working,” said Maggie. Turning further she saw Mike, and sheepishly said, “Hi Mike.”
“Don’t mind us, Maggie,” said Mike with a smile. ”We’re going over to the Mars section.” Mike started to walk off and then stopped suddenly and turned back to Maggie. “Say, Maggie, how many of our bots are on that new comms system?”
“About half so far, but it’s all on the construction side. None of the R&D bots down here have gotten the upgrade since we don’t let any old bot driver into the lab system,” Maggie replied.
“Halfway out of a job already,” Mike muttered under his breath, while Ed frowned and looked down.
“What was that?” asked Maggie.
“Nothing. Ed will fill you in later. Come on Ed lets see what you have.”
As the walked over to the Martian chamber, Mike looked at all the bots and various 3d assemblers of many sizes and shapes. A hundred years ago it took hundreds of men and many millions of dollars of highly specialized equipment to build the latest factories or office buildings or sewer treatment plants for megacities, now take just small teams of bot drivers, and even smaller groups of design engineers to build these mega construction projects. Sure it saved money and saved lives since the work was often dangerous. Plus bots can be driven twenty-four hours a day by different shifts of drivers with just a little downtime for maintenance. Need a specialized tool or even a complete machine? The design engineers can crank them out on the 3d assemblers quickly. In fact, most of the design work is sent to outsourcing anyway. It was cheaper and quicker to get one-offs that way.
It took awhile to adapt it all to the airless environment of the moon and the different base materials available, but once B&E labs got it down, it was off to the races building out projects large and small on the moon. Now in front of them was the Martian chamber, which branched off into a side chamber with an observation window and a large vacuum door big twenty feet high and wide. Inside, the room is at the same atmospheric and temperature conditions as the target site on Mars. Walking over to the window, Ed pulled on some bot gloves to control some arms and hands in the chamber.
Ed reached out grabbed the air and then lifted his arms. “See this one?” said Ed with the bot arms inside holding a large block. “This is the latest test article, and I think we have the sintering process sorted out. These blocks have a high tensile strength and aren’t nearly as brittle as the previous batches. These will do nicely for any topside construction up to at least thirty feet tall. We’ll just use the same notch and lock system we use here on the moon and spray on pressure lining from the inside. The sprayers work a little bit better in a limited atmosphere instead of none at all. Best of all it looks like three layers of these blocks can give adequate radiation protection as long as there are no solar flares.”
“Still the best way is to get the majority of things underground. Do we have any news yet on the core samples?” asked Ed.
“Not yet, last I heard they were still trying to get the drills down past one hundred feet. Something about the drill heads not working right,” replied Mike. “You will be the first person I call when I find out. How about the 3d equipment? Have you finished testing all the mods for Mars?”
Ed rubbed his face with a gloved hand, and the block dropped from the bot arm as it swung up to mimick his move nearly smashing a light fixture on the ceiling of the Martian chamber. Mike jerked his eyes toward the window seeing the bot arm shooting upwards.
“Oh, sorry,” said Ed with a face almost as red as Maggie’s hair. “I keep forgetting I have these on. Yes,” he stammered, “the adjustments are working well enough, about within five percent of normal lunar performance. As soon as we get those core results, I’ll know if our mole bots are compatible. The lunar regolith is fairly easy to work with, and then there is the harder basalt you get down here. If the samples are of harder rock that basalt, then we have issues, but the prevailing theory with the site geologists is that will not be the case on our site since there is little evidence of past volcanoes there.”
At that moment Mike’s ear pinged with an incoming call. “Sorry Ed, got a call coming in. Can you give me a moment?”
“Sure,” replied Ed as he wandered over to another panel of equipment.
“Cotter here,” said Mike as he engaged his comms.
A nasal voice answered, “Mr. Cotter this is Sloan over at security. We’re having an issue that you need to know about, but I don’t want to say it over the comms. Can you drop by?”
“I’m at R&D right now, but can be there in a half hour. Will that work?” asked Mike.
Julie Humphries sat across from Frank Sloan as he ended his call to Mike Cotter. Frank was a lump of flesh looking to escape his clothing and seemingly protruding in every direction from his gray security uniform. Julie disliked him from the start as Frank always liked to get up too close into her personal space and would frequently touch her arm or shoulder. Now she had positioned herself with his desk between them.
“You should have told him at least a little,” she said.
“Honey,” replied Frank “B&E security rules. We are always on the lookout for industrial espionage. You need to leave the security stuff to the experts and just trust me on this.”
“Dick.” Julie thought to herself. She would have taken this directly to Cotter she thought, but always found herself tongue-tied around him, and besides, he was the top B&E boss on the moon. Julie was a stickler for following the chain of command from when as an Army brat and later as a logistics officer. That was the one good thing that came out of her Army career, she thought. Managing battle bot inventories and supply chains made her a perfect match for overseeing all the robotic construction equipment inventories and repairs. In an instant, she could tell how much of the force was available and currently in use as well having an eagle eye for estimating repair times.
Julie had wanted to follow her dad into a military career since she was a small child. She loved the uniforms, the order, and structure of military life. Being an Army brat it was all she knew. Julie had romanticized her father, an Infantry Major, but he had made it clear to her that, while he supported her desire to be an office, that a combat role was not a job for a woman. Once she was out of West Point, she found her niche in logistics and loved it, but then she became intimately familiar with the bureaucracy and became it’s sworn enemy. Her father often called them “ass kissing, paper rustling, sons of bitches,” and now she knew what he meant. More than a few lower and mid-level officers, particularly the ones not directly involved with combat ops, were just ticket punchers and ass kissers, and the women officers were often the worst. Colonel Sandra Bartok was the final straw. Julie came close to a court-martial on that one, so she mustered out having lost her love for the Army.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Frank saying, “I just don’t see how that much equipment could go missing without someone noticing. Don’t you keep track of this stuff?” he said with more than a little accusation in his voice.
A red blush crept up Julie’s neck and onto her face as she gritted her teeth and said, “You don’t want me questioning your security protocols so don’t go questioning my business about which you know nothing. Our inventory system is real-time and constant. Somebody has jimmied the inventory computers. It showed the equipment and where it was, but then we started finding that stuff wasn’t where the system said it was. All that stuff has a more advanced version of our security implants. We know where it is and it’s operational status, and who is logged in at all times. I think we have a hacker.”
“Ok babe, whatever,” Frank replied with a doubtful look down his lumpy nose.
Julie leaped up from her chair to give him a large piece of her mind when the door opened and in walked Mike Cotter. Julie found herself making a wild emotional gyration from anger to embarrassment as she looked at Mike. It was his eyes that always did it to her. Cotter wasn’t particularly attractive, but he was fit and carried himself with an air of confidence. But it was the pale blue eyes that undid her every time.
Mike looked at Julie and then at Frank. “Am I interrupting?”, he said.
“Not at all,” said Frank. Julie is just getting worked up over this problem I called you about. We got us some theiving going on. Probably some other outfit is sneaking off with our equipment.”
“No Frank, it’s bigger than that,” Julie spit out while staring holes into Frank’s fat forehead.
“Mr. Cotter, I think we have someone hacking into our inventory system and sneaking off with our equipment”, said Julie. “There’s a lot of proprietary design information they can gather from both the bots themselves, but also from the inventory system since both links to the designer files. They can steal and replicate our processes and compete directly against us on other contract bids. They are even taking some of the 3d bots, though I don’t know why. Those 3d bots are Broadstone models that anyone can buy.”
“How much is missing?” asked Mike.
“Six general construction bots, a mole bot and seven 3d units of varying sizes,” Julie replied.
“When did you find them missing off the inventory monitor?” Mike asked.
“That’s just it,” said Julie. “They still show on inventory. Their ID tags are showing where they are and their operational status, but when you go to that location they aren’t there. I’ve looked at camera feeds at the last known location and cannot find any trace they were ever at that location. We only keep video back a month unless flagged for archiving, but I had the AI scan all video across the complex trying to see this missing equipment moving around and came up with nothing. The fact that the equipment is still showing in inventory tells me that the inventory system was hacked as part of the theft of equipment.”
Mike looking at her with a frown said “So you think we’ve been hacked? Hmm… is this equipment upgraded with the new quantum comms? Maybe B&E on earth is doing something with them and haven’t told us about it.”
Julie stretched out her tablet, punched at it a few times and said, “Yes, all that equipment has the new comms,” she said as she rolled her tablet back up and put it in her pocket.
“Well, there you go,” said Mike. As I recall those units can be controlled by regular radio or quantum radio, right? And the other entangled node is on earth. So as I see it, only two things are possible, B&E earth has taken those units by q-radio and didn’t bother to tell us, or somebody here took them. And if somebody here took them, then home office can q-radio in and regain control and locate them.”
“But what about the faked inventory status?”, Julie said. “Why would B&E earth do that?”
“White hat hacker testing maybe,” suggested Frank.
Julie watched Mike sit down and stare at a spot on the wall thinking. As he did this Julie watched him out of the corner of her eye, and her mind started to drift. I wonder if he’s seeing anyone she thought. There are nearly ten thousand people here in Grissom City, and they all don’t work for B&E. Grissom isn’t quite the company town it used to be with all the tourists and researchers. He wouldn’t be interested anyway. B&E is pretty hardcore about fraternizing inside your area of operations. But then again so was the Army, but that didn’t stop relationships like the one she had with Jimmie. He was a captain, and she was a lieutenant at the time. It lasted nearly the entire time he was the CO of her unit until he made Major and moved on. Julie still remembered the sadness when she heard that he had married some General’s daughter.
Mike stood up with a determined look and said, “not a word of this to anyone, even inside the company. I’m going to call the home office and see if we can gain control of the bots and determine their location. It’s possible that whoever stole them doesn’t know they have q-comms, so maybe we can spy on them and see who is behind this. Julie, shoot me a file with the idents of all the equipment involved, and I want you to check the designer base to see if any of those 3d units have been accessing our design files. That might give us some clues too.”
As Mike was leaving, he said, “I want to hear any ideas and new information from the two of you no matter what time of day or night, so stay in touch.”
After the door closed behind Mike, Frank got a giddy look on his face and said, “finally something interesting to work on here. I can’t tell you how boring it is doing random security checks on staff and their comings and goings.”
Julie just stared at him. “Frank, you do realize this puts our jobs on the bubble? B&E is going to be looking at you and me asking why we let this happen on our watch.”
Frank blinked and said, “Shit, didn’t think of that. I got some contacts at Grissom BA. Maybe they’ve heard something.”
“You will not do that Frank,” Julie shot out. “Mike said to keep it between the three of us. Grissom Base Authority isn’t going to be much help here anyway. They only know how to deal with petty crimes and keeping the peace.” Shit, Julie thought to herself, they couldn’t even solve the one murder in Grissom that happened two years ago. On top of that, the laws and legal systems of each moon base are kinda loosey-goosey depending on who founded the base, what corporations were the major players, etc. Things often get ignored or just covered up with the unending lunar dust.
“So now it’s Mike, and not Mr. Cotter,” said Frank with a mocking voice. “Getting sweet on him, or are you just trying to sleep your way out of getting shit-canned for this?”
Julie marched around the desk where Frank was seated and bent down an inch away from his face, eyeball to eyeball and said, “Frank, the only person I’m going to fuck up is you if you don’t keep your mouth shut and your eyes on the problem.” Julie turned smartly about and walked out of Frank’s office.
Walking down the hall, Julie was steaming mad muttering, “that fat fuck! God, I hate pricks like him, who think they are everything.” What bothered her even more though, was what he said about her sleeping with Mike. That triggered her bad. Jeez, I’ve got to get my mind off Mike and on this problem. I don’t have a chance with him anyway… I wonder who he is seeing she thought as she walked to the tramway to ride back to her office on the other side of Grissom.