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Atomic Trap




            Mrs. Bateman gripped her cane tightly in one hand and pulled her personal shopping cart closely behind her. With a hunched back, she steadily hobbled on her way, timing her steps to the regular click as the cart rolled past the sidewalk cracks. Sunday mass had just ended, and she was headed home to bake a cake for tonight’s monthly choir party.

            Humming a soft tune, Mrs. Bateman entered her house and softly set the purchased eggs, flour, and vanilla essence on the kitchen counter. She set her oven for preheating at 350°F and began to prepare the ingredients. As she whisked the eggs, a pungent burnt smell permeated the room. Wisps of gray curled from the oven, covering the kitchen in an obscure haze. Mrs. Bateman rushed to the oven to turn it off. She opened the door, and upon peering into the smoke, promptly fainted.

            As the haze cleared, the unbearable smell of burnt flesh emerged. A charred cat lay inside, with its legs standing stiff in the air and the fur on its back badly singed. The racks were still tinged with a smouldering red, representing an unspoken warning of what was to come.

Chapter One

            “Have you heard? Another burnt cat case was reported last week! How is it possible that the police have not yet caught this feline killer?”

            “It’s only February, and yet, it’s the second incident this year! How many more times must this cruelty happen before they can finally solve this case?”

            The small town of Pond buzzed with feelings of anxiety, trepidation and uneasiness. The citizens were unnerved by the continuous appearances of burnt cats – these happenings first began a few years ago, and to date, there have been a total of seventeen slaughters reported. These killings happen sporadically, without any apparent motive and without any perceptible pattern. The most recent reporting involved an elderly woman who, upon preparing to bake a cake, found a dead cat inside her oven. As a result, she suffered from a heart attack but fortunately made a full and robust recovery. Although the police consequently deployed all available forces to thoroughly investigate, no breakthroughs had been made.  

            With a population of roughly 30,000 people, Pond was a peaceful municipality situated north of New York City. To its east rested an impossibly still lake – a lake so tranquil and silent that air of eeriness weighed upon it year-round. On the northern end of the town lay a densely packed forest, its beautiful vivid green standing as a stark contrast to the muted hues of the lake. Multiple sightings of wild coyotes prowling near the forest opening have been made in the past years; as such, no citizen dared to venture near that vicinity.

            For this reason, the United States Department of Defense constructed a secret military base, code-named The Nucleus, deep within this forest. The obsidian black walls of the hidden fortress housed the country’s top scientists. These researchers worked on the government’s most closely guarded secrets, inventing and engineering the military’s most advanced technology and weapons. In fact, the seventeen burnt cat carcasses were all directly related to these scientific R&D projects.

            The Nucleus’ premises were constantly under close surveillance, with armed military personnel conducting rounds regularly. Specially trained forces were deployed within the building during work hours, as well as positioned at all of the external entrances. When all scientists would leave in the evening, the same number of Special Forces members would patrol outside the institute. However, the number of members within the building would dwindle, and surveillance responsibility for the night shift would fall to one member of the Special Forces. This individual would guard the premises alone until 9 a.m. the next morning when replaced by a full squad of the Special Forces.

There were two entrances into the building, and all individuals had to comply with stringent security protocols and policies, supported by the use of state-of-the-art technology. In addition to requiring top-level clearance, the personnel also had to pass through advanced imaging technology and multiple detectors. The final step of the security procedure was biometric authentication, complete with fingerprint scans, palm scans, retina scans, and voice recognition. Objects and materials were strictly prohibited from entering and leaving the building; the only exception was the clothing worn on the body, which had to be searched and approved by security. Car keys and other personal belongings must be kept by the special forces and will be released at the exit. In order to ensure that the system was infallible, imageries were taken of each personnel and reviewed. The clothing worn upon entry and exit of the building would have to be compared and confirmed to be identical before the individual could be granted a leave of the institute.

If personnel attempted to bring additional objects into The Nucleus other than the clothing worn on their bodies, a verbal warning would be issued the first time. The goods would then be confiscated, scrutinized, and then available for pickup only upon the visitor’s leave. If personnel attempted to take things away from The Nucleus, not only would the objects be confiscated and closely examined, but the person would be taken in for questioning. Further action may even be taken, such as demerit points and dismissal. If what the person had attempted to remove was confidential material classified as a state secret, he or she risked being charged for treason.

The Nucleus had many valuable inventions created by its brainy scientists. There was a missile engineered to travel at Mach 30 while carrying 100,000 tonnes of munition which could reach its target within half an hour from any location in the world, a handheld laser gun that could penetrate an inch of steel plate within its three-mile radius, and a satellite navigation gun that could kill from a thousand miles away. The most recent and prized creations were a bulletproof coating for soft materials that matched any shirt in texture and versatility, as well as antimatter, the most expensive material of all times.

Due to the extreme importance of these innovations and materials, top military personnel commonly frequented The Nucleus to monitor new advancements and ensure progress was on schedule. That morning, a stately figure crisply dressed in a clean uniform strode briskly through security, acknowledging the salutes of others with a curt nod. Lieutenant General Donald Smith was an impressive character; his tall frame and well-built stature carried a certain power and strength that filled the room. His short hair and mustache were speckled with flecks of gray, and his clear emerald eyes took everything in with a piercing gaze. A three-star general of the army and highest in command at The Nucleus, Smith looked much younger than his age of 50 years.

Smith was accompanied by a young Chinese scientist, who stood in stark contrast to the sharp commander. Alpha Young’s stout and short figure was consumed by his white laboratory coat. His almond eyes were enlarged by the thick lens of his silver-rimmed circular glasses, giving him the air of an academic scholar.

“Please, sit.” Smith entered his office and motioned to the seat facing his leather seat.

“So… First-Class Honours Graduate of the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, studied six years further to obtain a Ph.D. in Physics. You specialize in the study and use of antimatter.” Smith closed Young’s resume and extended his hand: “Impressive history. Welcome to The Nucleus.”

“It’s an honour.” Young cordially shook Smith’s hand.

“I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity, but I couldn’t help but wonder… as an American citizen, why did you choose to study in the UK?”

Young looked embarrassed and cleared his throat before beginning: “My parents were definitely the main influencing factor. Being Hong Kong immigrants, they had a certain preference for Britain and British things. Their dream was always to send their children to Cambridge University because they perceived that institution to be the best in the world. As their only son, I felt a filial duty to fulfill their dream.”

Smith gave a chuckle and said: “I wouldn’t dare say that Cambridge is the world’s best, as many American institutions are just as prestigious. Here, let me introduce you to some of America’s finest minds!” He stood up and led Young into the laboratory, where Dr. Bruce Berry and Dr. Robert Bryant stood waiting.

Despite their age gap of more than 30 years, Berry and Bryant shared many similar traits. Both were MIT graduates who took only five years – half the time of what it takes an average individual – to complete their undergrad to Ph.D. degrees. The two scientists had connected immediately when they first met, and their close relationship resembled that of father and son.

Berry was the Chief Science Officer (CSO) at The Nucleus and was also the lead of the Antimatter Project. At roughly 60 years old, he had worked at the institution for over 30 years and had many years of scientific research experience. With a head full of snowy white hair, a bulging belly, and a rosy tinge to his round face, Berry was nicknamed Old St. Nick by many of his younger colleagues.

Bryant was a striking figure who towered over Young at six feet tall. His tanned skin and golden hair emitted a healthy glow under the LED lights. Being only in his mid-thirties, Bryant’s broad shoulders and strong physique made him fit for military service; however, despite descending from a lineage of remarkable military agents, Bryant had chosen to enter the scientific field of research.

            “Gentlemen, this is Dr. Alpha Young who hails from Cambridge University and specializes in the study of antimatter.” Smith purposely emphasized the British alma mater of Young in his introduction to the American scientists, causing Young to blush slightly again.

He then turned to address Young, saying: “Dr. Young, please meet Dr. Berry, who is both the pioneer of antimatter and the CSO of The Nucleus, as well as Dr. Bryant, who oversees our development of bulletproof coating for soft materials. These two gentlemen are MIT graduates. I will leave you three to further discussion.” Smith gave a slight tilt of his head and headed back to his quarters.

Berry watched him go with a solemn expression on his usually cheery face. Given his own increasing age nearing the national age of retirement, coupled with the antimatter specialization of Young, Berry knew that Young was purposely hired to replace him. In fact, Berry was given explicit directives to welcome Young as a part of the Antimatter Project and to transfer all his existing knowledge to the Cambridge graduate.

“Dr. Young, Dr. Bryant has some testing scheduled for today, so I will be your tour guide this morning,” said Berry politely while Bryant gave a slight smile and made his leave. “Come, follow me – let me show you the different facilities around The Nucleus.”

He brought Young to the various labs and quarters, explaining in detail the created inventions, the different experiments conducted, and the developments made. Throughout the tour, Young would smile courteously and nod respectfully but did not seem particularly amazed by the R&D experiments carried out at The Nucleus.

“And, last but not least, this is our oldest and most interesting contraption,” Berry said with a wink. He gestured ceremoniously to a glass wall of a room, behind which rested a flat, unimposing, dark gray platform that was connected to a black machine: “Voila – the time travel machine!”

Unable to control himself, Young gave a slight gasp and rushed to the glass, his fingers dancing excitedly all over the surface. He pushed his sliding silver frames back up his nose, eyes darting animatedly like an eager child waiting to open his Christmas presents.

Young muttered breathlessly: “How astounding! A time-travelling machine! Simply remarkable! Splendid, utterly splendid! I’ve asked and have personally visited all the top universities, but none of them have invested in researching time travel. But then again, The Nucleus is the top research institute for military weapons and technology, so I really shouldn’t be surprised…” Young’s voice trailed off as he straightened up and regained his composure.

Berry gave a knowing smile, and gestured to the door: “Come, let me take you inside so you can get a closer look.”

A single man in his mid-fifties stood inside the room, fiddling with some of the controls on a machine that had just previously won Young’s undivided, riveted attention. He was impeccably dressed in a form-fitting three-piece tweed suit, complete with a crisp bow tie. His wispy brown hair was gelled to the side, and he exuded an air of confidence. Despite being a scientist, he looked every inch the savvy and successful businessman. As Berry called his name, Dr. Henry Stone turned around, revealing a set of powder blue eyes.

“Dr. Stone, it is my great honour and pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Alpha Young, the newest addition to the Antimatter Project at The Nucleus.”

Stone extended his arm and grasped Young’s hand in a firm shake: “Pleasure. Please excuse the absence of my lab coat; I had the day off originally, but decided to come back and check on something.”

“Oh, no worries.” There was an awkward break before Young rushed to ask: “Does the time travel machine actually work?”

“There’s been some progress,” Berry answered, and shared a smile with Stone.

“Have we successfully travelled into the future? Or maybe into the past?” Young excitedly continued. He knew that the brightest minds internationally had not yet achieved any headway in this field; as such, even if the result was a mere one millisecond difference, it would still be considered a ground-breaking success.

Stone cleared his throat and said: “Unfortunately, we have yet to effectively travel through time. However, we have attained success in transporting materials through space.”

“So you mean teleportation?”

“Not quite, as there are some limitations associated with this transportation. Firstly, it can move only organic matter. Secondly, the machine can only ship matter within a ten-mile radius. It cannot go any further beyond this distance. Lastly, but most importantly… none of the organic matter transported can handle the energy and power of the high-frequency teleportation rays. The rays kill all living matter; we have attempted to transport living creatures, but they were found dead upon arrival. Even lifeless creatures cannot sustain the immense power and arrive burnt to a crisp. You may have heard the recent news about all the burnt cat bodies – they were the direct result of our experimentation, and not due to some psychotic cat hunter.” Stone paused a second to allow Young to digest and absorb all this information.

Young’s eyes rested on a set of lights mounted from the ceiling, with its bulbs directed to the opaque, smoky-gray platform. Noticing the focus of Young’s gaze, Berry interrupted Stone: “The gray flat surface at which you are looking is where we place the cats for teleportation experimentation. I’m sure you’ve heard of graphene – in fact, I have no doubt that you should be very familiar with its properties. It is widely known to be the world’s slimmest yet strongest nanomaterial with properties that outrank some of the best materials we currently have. For instance, its conductivity is greater than both silicon crystals and carbon nanotubes, while its thermal conductivity is higher than that of carbon nanotubes and diamonds. Its resistivity is actually the lowest in the world, below that of copper and silver. Due to these superior properties, graphene is used in many of the world’s most advanced electronic systems.”

“Now,” Berry continued: “The platform that you see is composed of super-graphene, a substance personally engineered by Dr. Stone. Its strength is a hundred times that of graphene, which is why it is able to withstand the energy of the teleportation rays.”

Stone cleared his throat, his face distorted with a sour expression. Sarcastically and drily, he drawled: “Dr. Berry, it seems that you possess an unusual interest in time travel. Perhaps you’d like to join our team since you appear to be such an expert in this field.”

Realizing that he had trespassed upon Stone’s area of expertise, and as a consequence, had displeased Stone, Berry immediately apologized: “My apologies for encroaching on your research, Dr. Stone.” He glanced down at his watch and said: “Well, it’s time we got going, Dr. Young. Thank you, Dr. Stone, for your patience and time.”

The two antimatter specialists continued on their way through the building, stopping by a curious creation. There was an opening in the wall in the hallway, and embedded in it was a half concave shape. Upon approaching it, Young was able to catch a better glimpse and could see that the concave shape was actually a glass capsule that was open to the hall.

Berry explained: “What you see here is our escape passage, the most vital and important contraption in this building. If The Nucleus is in any sort of danger – arson, robbery, terrorism, you name it – then we use this passageway as a means of escape. All you need to do is run into the opening and into the capsule. The glass door will close once you press the red button to your right-hand side, surrounding you in a bulletproof and fireproof structure.”

“There’s only one of these capsules in all of The Nucleus?” Young asked incredulously.

“Oh no, not at all! There are twice as many capsules as there are people in The Nucleus. In fact, you can find one of these structures dispersed around the building.” Berry gestured down the hall, and Young could see a few other similar openings.

Berry then continued: “The centralized security system will then take this glass capsule, and transport you to a random location near the military base of The Nucleus. The computerized system ensures that each capsule takes you to a different location, and each time, the location differs. The rationale behind this provision is the idea that if someone wanted to kidnap any of us, they couldn’t just follow us using another capsule, as they wouldn’t end up in the same place.”
            “Now, since all of the scientists working here are considered valuable assets of the U.S. government, the Pentagon is immediately notified if anyone deploys a capsule. Military personnel will then arrive at the destination location to protect us.” Berry gave a cynical smile: “Although they say that they’re protecting us, it’s more so to guarantee that we will not steal any confidential or top-secret information.”

Berry concluded the tour with some housekeeping items, stating: “There is no wireless internet in The Nucleus; any and all transmission and communication signals from personal devices are blocked from the outside world. The only internet connection exists on the state-owned computers in the building, where all transmissions are handled from a centralized system. The NSA and military have access to and records of all correspondence from these computers, including e-mails, web searches, and even a complete history of what you have typed.” Upon seeing the alarmed expression on Young’s face, Berry teased with a wink: “So remember to keep things professional, and don’t be too passionate when writing or communicating with your significant other!”




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