by E.S. Strout
part 1 of 2
Monday, 1 December 2008
Encoded transmission to Z2R Alpha Epsilon: We remain cloaked, stationary within third planet’s atmosphere. Subatomic particle signature confirmed. Location is their research laboratory. Alien scientist’s computer impenetrable to us.
Z2R Alpha Epsilon to Probe Zeta 4: Use of cerebral cortical probe authorized.
Space Corps, NASA Complex, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Tuesday, 2 December 2008. 1033 hours
The two-year old green Toyota Camry suddenly careened, spun and impacted a light pole. Its driver-side window was a spiderweb of cracks and the door was crumpled. Paramedics and base security personnel arrived within minutes.
Base Infirmary, 1230 hours
“You were lucky, Professor Maas,” said thirty-year old, slim, blonde Susan Grant, M.D. She completed suturing the last of several facial lacerations, gave him a reassuring smile. “EMT’s said you were conscious.”
“I was dazed.”
“Any recollections, Dr. Maas?” Security Chief Blake Watkins asked in a concerned Georgia-Florida drawl.
“I sensed numbers, Blake.”
“Yes. In groups of four.”
“He has a mild concussion,” Dr. Grant said.
Thirty-four year old subatomic particle physicist Adrian Maas interlaced tremulous fingers in his lap. “Will I live, Susan?”
“Your cranial x-rays are negative but the MRI shows some odd frontal lobe activity, Dr. Maas. I’d like to keep you here overnight as a precaution.”
“I’ll be okay. I’ve gotta go with Mr. Watkins.”
Dr. Grant held up a hand mirror. “What do you think?”
“Yikes! I’ve been attacked by Betsy Ross on LSD.”
“Wiseass.” A raised eyebrow and blue-eyed wink. “These should heal without scarring. Please come by my office at about nine on Thursday morning so I can check my embroidery.”
Security Office, 1325 hours
“Dr. Maas, We’ve gone over your car,” Watkins said. “Brakes and steering are okay. Something must have distracted you.”
“A major headache, Blake.” He massaged his temples. “Our computer hacker has been a distraction.”
“I know. Multiple attempts on your classified research files.”
Maas nodded. “I’ve been lucky and blocked them all so far.”
Watkins gave Maas an odd grin and handed over a printout. “We picked up this transmission. Groups of four numbers, like you said. ”
“It’s a numeric code, Blake.”
“NASA and CIA cryptographers are working on it.”
“I am too. Have them run foreign languages.”
Wednesday, 3 December. 0927 hours
“You gotta be kidding,” Maas said as he chewed four Tylenol tablets.
Security Chief Watkins said: “No luck on the code so far, compadre. They’ve run it in Korean, Chinese, Farsi and Arabic. Been working on it all night. But we know where it comes from.”
He aimed an index finger at the ceiling. “Out there.”
“Neither. We’ve checked. The Air Force sent fighter aircraft to investigate. No hits on their most sophisticated radar.”
Maas shook his head in bewilderment. “Come on, Blake. A UFO?”
“You got a better idea?”
Thursday, 4 December. 1115 hours.
Dr. Grant’s office
She finished her examination of the suture lines, swabbed the bridge of Maas’s nose with peroxide. “A bit of redness here. I’ll give you some stronger antibiotic cream. Three times a day.”
“Now don’t forget,” she warned. “Can’t have a hotshot scientist coming down with a staph infection.”
Maas hung his head, blushed. ”Overslept, Sue. Forgot.”
She nodded. “You were only two hours late for your appointment. Anything you want to tell me?”
“I had lunch at the Officers Club yesterday afternoon. Some friends decided I needed more pain medication after seeing my face.”
Dr. Grant regarded him with a penetrating clinical eyeball. “Your right hand has a tremor. How many?”
“Three or four. Maybe five.”
Susan sighed, shook her head. “Why are you 180-plus IQ brainiacs always the worst patients?”
“Jack Daniels Tennessee sippin’ whiskey on the rocks cured my headache. Shouldn’t ethanol make it worse?”
“I would think so,” she said as she paged through his clinical record. “You had a headache before your accident according to Mr. Watkins.”
“You’re sure it was before the accident?”
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “Yes. Worst one yet.”
“You’ve had others?”
“Yes. Starting about the time an unidentified hacker tried to break into my classified project files. I’ve been a little stressed.”
“I’d say that’s more than a little stress.”
Maas nodded. “Very sensitive files. Security Level Q-7.”
Grant gave him a pert grin. “Same as mine, Dr. Maas. I’m no hotrod physicist, but I treat and do flight physicals on all our astronauts.”
“Q-7. Hmm,” he said with a shy smile. “I could show it to you.”
She returned his grin. “Your project? You’re sure?”
“All right. I can swap days with Dr. Mitsuhashi.”
“Tomorrow morning around ten. Room 101, Building E as in Echo. Don’t overdress. The lab is a bit scruffy.”
Friday, December 5. 0955 hours
Susan pressed the fingerprint pad and blinked at the retinal scan. Blake Watkins nodded. “Q-7. Good. Come with me, Dr. Grant.”
“This is Professor Maas’s lab,” he said. A hand printed 3x5 inch card Scotch-taped to the door of Room 101 read: THERE IS NO GRAVITY. THE EARTH SUCKS.
“He does have an odd sense of humor.”
Watkins smiled. “Always has.”
Dr. Maas’s office held a government issue gray metal desk, two chairs and a desktop G5 iMac. Stacks of paperwork covered the ink-stained blotter. A Mr. Coffee steamed on a shelf in one corner. A cryptogram and a Diabolical Sudoku from the morning Orlando Sentinel lay on the desktop, both solved.
“Dr. Maas? It’s me.”
“Hi Susan. Grab some coffee. I’m in the lab.”
The five-foot-ten rail-thin researcher smiled. “You dressed for the occasion, I see.”
She wore a windbreaker jacket over a blue NASA sweatshirt and Levi’s. Running shoes and heavy white athletic socks. “Gets a bit chilly here in December.”
She held up the newspaper. “You do cryptograms and the toughest Sudoku in ink. I’m impressed.”
“They just pop into my head. Strange, huh?”
She sipped coffee. “You were a cryptographer according to your file.”
“A year at Langley. I was good, got bored. There are bigger challenges here. For one, this hacker is giving Blake and me headaches.”
Susan massaged her forehead. “I’m starting to get one.”
Maas nodded. “Me too. I’m intrigued that Jack Daniels improved mine yesterday. Tylenol has little effect. Any ideas, Doctor?”
She smiled. “I’ll work on it.”
“Take a look around.”
Susan gave the laboratory a calculating eyeball. “Looks like my Dad’s auto parts store and garage where he works on sports cars.”
“Here’s some Chevy V-8 engine parts,” she said. “And transmission components. Stick shift. Not what I’d expect in a subatomic particle physicist’s lab.”
Adrian grinned. “I’m impressed. You know your cars.”
She sniffed the air. “Motor oil, transmission fluid. Odd. I don’t smell any gasoline.”
“Come with me.”
He punched digits on a keypad in the green tile wall. A steel pocket door retracted to reveal a descending stairway that led to a spacious garage.
A glistening black sports car crouched panther-like on the concrete deck. Grant blinked in surprise. “1968 Chevy Corvette. Nice restoration.”
“Another hobby, Sue. Took me two years.”
An expectant gleam in her eyes. “May I...?”
“It’s a five-speed...”
“Automatic is for wimps.”
“Good answer.” Adrian pressed a wall switch and the outer garage door folded up.
He opened the door for her. “Press the red START button, left side of the instrument panel.”
She did, then again. “Nothing happened.”
“Takes a few seconds to warm up. Watch for a green light over the tachometer.”
“Green.” She donned a Florida Marlins baseball cap and aviator sunglasses from her spacious purse. “Let’s go.”
He eyed a small dashboard screen. It read 0.00. “Good.”
She tapped impatient fingers on the steering wheel. “What’s good?”
“We’re ready. Go right one block.”
Susan eased the Corvette into first gear. There was a faint mechanical murmur as the transmission engaged. “I can’t hear the motor, Adrian.”
“Easy now,” he cautioned. “Base speed limit is 25 mph. Take a left at the T intersection and stop.”
The Corvette idled, its engine an urgent whisper. Dusty wind-blown macadam stretched out ahead in the chilly air. “Where to, Adrian?”
He checked her seat belt harness, nodded. “You’re leading the last lap of the Daytona 500 with Jeff Gordon trying to take downforce off your spoiler and pass you on the inside. Now hit it.”
G-forces pinned them to their seat backs as the Corvette pounced. “Bye-bye Jeff!” Dr. Grant screamed as she pounded the steering wheel.
“Perimeter fence coming up in a mile, Sue,” Adrian said. “Ease off your revs and stop there.”
The Corvette eased to a halt with a contented purr. “Do I get a look at your power plant?” she asked.
Dr. Maas nodded. He popped the hood latch to reveal a dull gray spherical containment structure with complex circulation duct components. “It powers a little steam turbine connected to the drive shaft. Water cooled. It releases clean steam vapor as exhaust.”
He rested a hand on its smooth surface. “Cool as an Eskimo Pie. The fuel source and primary heat exchanger are insulated and shielded.”
Grant removed her sunglasses, stared. “A nuclear reactor? It’s so small.”
“Complex process, Susan. This is the prototype. It depends on muon reaction...”
Grant stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Keep it simple, Prof.”
Maas grinned. “Muons are subatomic particles with a very short half-life. If they don’t decay they can expedite fusion of tritium atoms at room temperature. I made them not decay. It’s cold fusion, Susan.”
A perceptive nod. “I’ll bet this is what your hackers are after.”
Copyright © 2008 by E.S. Strout