Roman’s heart raced. This was it. The culmination of three years of painstaking nonstop work. Truly nonstop; he’d found it easier to live in the lab for the last several months—years? Surely it was only months—venturing out less and less frequently. His fellow lab assistants shared his zeal, but no one could compare to Dr. Tan, who had taken to sleeping only every other day. She inspired them all, which is why she would be the first.
Roman looked up at Dr. Tan on the focal platform and felt the color rise in his cheeks. He loved this woman. Not in a romantic way, but in a way that was transcendent; spiritual, even. Her charisma and her leadership, and the presence of this place, caused pride and a sense of purpose to swell in his heart, and he wiped away happy tears. The towering machines formed a techno-cathedral of coils and coolant tanks and gold and copper circuitry. It was time to bring it to life.
With as much satellite coverage as we have, it’s a wonder the Artifact managed to slip into LEO unseen, but that is just what it did. A three-meter-wide ultrablack icosahedron simply appeared one day as if from thin air, and an orbital debris recovery ship owned by one of Dr. Tan’s companies just happened to be closest. The information within the Artifact led to the construction of this—whatever this was, beyond the most expensive and secretive private venture in human history.
Human history, because clearly there were Other histories out there. Dr. Tan hoped to reach the Others.
She nodded to Roman. He had the distinguished responsibility of starting the machine. With shaking, sweaty hands, he powered up the 12 massive generators and, holding his breath, he closed the tertiary, secondary, and primary breakers. Throughout the lab, a hundred-thousand separate devices whooshed and whirred and hummed and clattered together in concert for the first time.
Dr. Tan stood calmly on the focal platform with her arms outstretched in a welcome gesture. Five seconds passed. Ten seconds. Thirty.
“Is anything happening?” she called over the cacophony of the machinery. A ghostly echo of her voice came from nowhere, crescendoing and distorting rapidly into monstrous thunder through some sort of powerful feedback loop. Roman eyed the breakers, not yet fully forming the thought to throw them, when the lab burst into electric red light.
A radiant bubble of flux lines ballooned around Dr. Tan. Within that prismatic bubble, Roman saw her reflected and refracted a thousand times over, as if he were seeing her through a kaleidoscope. But they weren’t quite reflections; they were all different. He didn’t have long to look. Dr. Tan was consumed all at once by white light that burst from her body in a concussive blast that blew the lab half apart. Roman was thrown twenty feet back, left groping in a stupor on the floor some time later, his eardrums perforated and his eyes temporarily flash blinded. The image of Dr. Tan, arms outstretched and sheathed in lightning, would remain permanently on his retinas.
The lab was decimated. Twenty-six wounded, seven dead. And one unknown.
Roman left the country and never spoke of it again. Most did the same, and the incident was eventually forgotten.
1,047 years later, in a flood plain that had previously been a remote desert, a red bubble temporarily outshined the sun.
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Eva Kedves, used with permission.