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"Mission Control, this is Cabot. We have established standard orbit at Sierra Seven-Five, and are beginning preliminary survey."
Lieutenant Colonel Julian LaVree's voice crackled from the overhead speakers, echoing in the hard-walled Mission Control Center. The chamber was one of the largest in the Union's Tycho Crater Moonbase. Communication, telemetry monitoring, and long-range scanner terminals stood in ordered ranks, occupying much of the room's floor space. One wall was taken up by larger, flat-screen monitors.
"Roger, Cabot," senior controller Adam Paige responded. "Mission Control awaits your feeds."
Paige logged in Cabot's message, glancing at the largest of the wall-mounted monitors. In the center right of the display, a yellow cursor marked the position of the mission currently under way. The cursor, in the shape of a tiny spaceship, held position over a near-Earth body designated Sierra Seven-Five. In the lower right-hand corner of the display was the mission clock. Bold white characters proclaimed the time and date, 08:38 A.M. 27 March 2114.
No one knew the origins of that planet. That was at least part of the reason Cabot had been sent out across the uncertain reaches of the Outer Ring to investigate the seemingly dead world. Unmanned probes suggested that several man-made structures existed on that world, many of them still intact. The lack of major power sources indicated that the beings who had raised these buildings had either died out, or fled their world. In either case, Sierra Seven-Five was yet another victim of the Maelstrom.
The Maelstrom. The word caused a qualm of uneasiness in Paige. No one knew exactly what or even where the Maelstrom was. All that was known for certain was that it was an immeasurably vast area of time and space into which Earth and the moon had been dragged. During the chaos that accompanied Earth's "Induction" into the Maelstrom, as scientists were calling it, incredible "Earth Changes" occurred. Radical shifts in planetary weather patterns led to massive storms. Seismic tremors shook nearly every area of the planet, some laying waste to entire regions. The island nation of Japan was one area to suffer such massive devastation. Alien plants, fungi, and animal life began to appear in those places. Some of these were benign, some hostile. All were frightening. There had been reports of alien creatures actually invading the planet. Many of the surviving humans had put these rumors down to panic and to an increased level of hostility between the Neo-Soviet Empire and the North American Union. In the wake of the Induction, first skirmishes, and then outright battles had been fought between the old enemies, culminating in a limited exchange of nuclear weapons. There were still the occasional scraps between east and west, but things seemed to have settled down for now.
In all the terror and chaos of the Induction, little had been discovered about Terra's new and frightening neighborhood. It had been eight years since the Induction. Now the Union Space Corps was seeking to make up for that failure. It was known that the Maelstrom seemed to be a huge vortex, a pocket universe existing in some other dimension than the one it had been ripped out of. Earth occupied the outermost ring of the Maelstrom, far away from the huge blank disk of the Maw, a writhing, tentacled ball of energy that lay at the center of the Maelstrom. Other planets in the Outer Ring were close enough to be investigated by long-range probes. Sierra Seven-Five was one such world. The fact that the probe detected structures but no signs of life suggested several possibilities. Perhaps the entire population of the planet had died before, during, or after Sierra Seven-Five's Induction, or they had been wiped out by one of the alien races inhabiting the Maelstrom, or they might have found a way to escape through the Veil, the dark, shifting curtain that surrounded the Maelstrom. Survival and escape were the two highest priorities on everyone's minds.
While Paige mused on these unsettling thoughts, Lieutenant Colonel LaVree's voice sounded from the control room's speakers once again.
"Cabot to Mission Control, beginning first sensor sweep. Preliminary scans indicate a toxic atmosphere with high concentrations of ammonia and carbon dioxide. Pressure seems to be about the same as Earth. Indications of large bodies of wat "
A burst of loud static blasted from the speakers, ending abruptly. Then there was silence.
Paige sat upright in his chair.
"Cabot, this is Mission Control, say again your last." Paige knew it would take over forty-five minutes for a reply from the survey ship to reach Mission Control. He keyed a command into his computer terminal, calling up the vessel's telemetry feeds. All of the indicators that were relayed back to the control center from Cabot's sensor suite were blank.
"Telemetry, run a diagnostic," Paige barked.
"Already doing it, boss," a technician responded. "We got nothing. No telemetry, no carrier signal, no nothing. Cabot is completely off-line."
"Dammit," Paige cursed. "All right, keep trying to reestablish contact. Let me know the second you get anything. I've gotta call the Director."
The senior controller swore again as he reached for the comm-set. In a few moments, a link was established between the lunar control center and the Johnson Space Center on Earth.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," Paige said, as the Director of the Union Space Agency answered. A glance at his console clock revealed it was three in the morning in Texas. "We have a problem. Cabot has gone off-line. We're trying to reestablish contact, but I'm afraid she may be down."