The space station revolved slowly in orbit around a large red sun in a system devoid of planetary bodies. The station was a simple construction consisting of a hexagonal hub joined to an outer circular ring by three struts. This was Think Tank, the research station of the Institute for Advanced Science Studies.
The station was occupied by just six men, each a top-ranked intellectual in their chosen field of scientific study. The six distinguished scientists were at present all participating in an experiment that was taking place in a chamber located at the very centre of the station's hub.
The men were sitting silently and motionlessly; eyes closed and their arms resting by their sides. They were seated in contoured couches positioned against each side of a large hexagonal white cone. On the apex of the cone rested a dull, silver-grey sphere, slightly larger than a basketball.
Five of the men were each dressed in plain white tunics and trousers. The front of each of the tunics was decorated with a symbol consisting of a black triangle inside a coloured circle. The sixth man's clothes lacked the symbol, singling him out from his colleagues. His high forehead, square jaw-line and a scar, running down his right cheek, also marked him out as somehow different. He seemed to possess a particular air of arrogance and superiority.
For some time now, the six scientists had remained at rest. The tableau was marred only by the faint yet audible hum of the computer banks positioned against the walls of the chamber, and the constant clicking of a large electronic countdown display mounted on the wall. The timer was counting down seconds, displayed as Roman numerals: ‘... XXX, XXIX, XXVIII, XXVII, XXVI...’
With fifteen seconds left on the counter, the man who was different reacted suddenly. His eyes snapped open and, burning with a powerful intelligence, explored everything within his field of vision although his head remained motionless. His gaze finally came to rest on the counter as the final few seconds clicked away: ‘... V, IV, III, III, II, I...’
At the moment the countdown reached zero, lights on the computer consoles came on, and the other five men immediately began to tremble violently. Their faces contorted in silent screams as their bodies endured terrible spasms. Despite their paroxysms, the five remained fixed in their seats, their backs pressed to the cone as if glued in place.
The sixth man remained calm and relaxed, apparently unconcerned for the plight of his colleagues. He carefully got to his feet and impassively studied his colleagues as they continued to writhe in silent agony. He moved across to a computer console and flicked an array of switches. Immediately, the men stopped shaking and slumped in their seats.
The timer was still clicking away, only now it was counting up: ‘... XXV, XXVI, XXVII...’
A thin, confused babble of voices filled the room originating from the sphere positioned above the five scientists' heads. A hint of a satisfied smile played briefly across the sixth man's features. With brisk efficiency, he performed a cursory check on each of the men before crossing to another console and operated more controls. The babbling abruptly ceased. Then he moved back the first console and abruptly ripped out a number of fuses and cables in a brief shower of sparks. The counter halted.
The man then turned his attention to the sphere. He stretched out his right arm and the sphere rose from its perch, and hovered across the room to settle on his palm. He smiled once more, and then strode out of the chamber through a sliding door.
As the door hissed shut behind him, a pre-programmed sequence on the console activated, and a voice blared from a small speaker. ‘This is a recorded message. The Institute for Advanced Science Studies is under strict quarantine. Do not approach. Do not approach. Everything is under our control.’ The recording briefly fell silent, then, after a thirty second pause, repeated itself: ‘This is a recorded message...
Holding the sphere, the man strode purposefully along a passageway within one of the station's three connecting struts, then along a curved white walled corridor in the station's outer ring. He stopped at a door marked ‘Shuttle Craft’. The door opened to reveal a large hangar bay housing a sleek silver spacecraft. The man boarded the ship via a ramp, which then retracted into the hull.
On the upper surface of a section of the space station's outer ring, a hatch slid back and the spacecraft rose to the surface of the station on an elevator platform. The craft disengaged from the station and swooped gracefully away from the proximity of the space wheel. A cluster of engines at the rear of the ship fired, and it shot away into the distance with a fantastic spurt of speed.
In the central chamber, the five remaining scientists came to life. They rose to their feet with difficulty, and unsteadily attempted to walk, staggering and stumbling around the chamber, oblivious to the repeating quarantine message playing on in the background. One of the men lost his balance and collapsed in an uncoordinated heap on the floor. The others continued their macabre dance, failing to even acknowledge his plight. They appeared to be unaware of either each other or their surroundings. It was as though they had lost their minds.