Both Sides of the Story
by Thom Arrell
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3
When I came to my senses, I was in a room that was even smaller than the one in which they had questioned me. There was a bed, and a sink on the wall next to the door. Above it a mirror. In the far corner of the room was a steel toilet, without a seat. For the rest, the room was empty.
My head was not so fuzzy anymore and I was immediately attacked by memories. I envisioned the first sketch I had made of the Floater. Floater, that was the working title of the project. The first sketch wasn’t so much a design as it was a rough outline through which notes had been scribbled. Not by me. Ron had kept track of most of our brainstorm sessions.
The biggest problem had been obtaining the material. We made as much as we could out of organic material, because organic matter was easy to come by, but Peter had to smuggle the carbon fiber components out of the military base, by one by one. We didn’t consider it stealing, because if this project succeeded we would give it back and the military would probably be grateful to us for developing an awesome piece of technology that they had probably not thought of themselves.
At that moment, the door opened and the woman came in. Now that my vision was clear and her face no longer changed shape all the time, I noticed that she was beautiful. No, not just beautiful, she was breathtaking.
“Are you feeling better? You suddenly collapsed, and we brought you here to recover.”
“I didn’t collapse,” I answered, even though my entire body was screaming that I should not take it out on her, for she obviously only had my best interest at heart. “And you didn’t bring me here to recover.”
I really wanted to tell her about the others, but with all the strength that was in me, I managed to keep my mouth shut. I could trust no one in here.
“They instructed me to say that,” she admitted. “They drugged you and I wish I had been there to prevent it.”
She sounded sincere, but I knew that she was tricking me.
“Can I get you anything?”
“A glass of water would be nice,” I said even though I vaguely remembered the unpleasantness of the last time she had brought me a glass of water.
She left again and came back a few seconds later with a glass of water. She put it down in front of me and, as she bowed down, she held her mouth close to my ear and whispered: “You have to tell them what you know. Otherwise they will never let you out of here.”
I nodded, but I realized what game they were playing now: they were playing good cop, bad cop. She was the good cop. It wouldn’t work on me.
The woman wasn’t finished. “Here, they want you to take these pills, but I have swapped them for placebos that you can safely ingest. Don’t tell anyone I am helping you, please.”
Even now that I knew what game they were playing, it was difficult not to be swayed by her charm. When she held her head close to mine, I caught a whiff of her perfume, and it very nearly broke me.
She stood and put down two pills on the table. Then she left the room and closed the door behind her. Once again I was alone, although I knew they were watching from behind the mirror. I looked at the pills with skepticism. Of course they weren’t placebos. Still, I put them on my hand and slammed it to my mouth, followed by half a glass of water.
I swallowed and felt the pills stuck safely inside my cheek as the water flushed down my throat. Then I pretended to stub my toe and ducked down to inspect it. When I was sufficiently out of sight of the sink mirror, I spat out the pills, crushed them and ground them into the cracks in the floor. I hoped that not too much of them had been dissolved by my saliva.
* * *
When they were convinced I had taken the pills, they waited five more minutes for the pills to take effect, then two goons showed up and brought me back to the interrogation room. I tried to act confused by babbling incomprehensibly, but through half-closed eyelids I closely watched the route we were taking; at least I would have some idea where I was.
We went through a long hallway, then quickly turned two corners and took an elevator to what I assumed was deep underground. When the elevator doors opened again, the interrogation room was on the other side of the hallway. They forced me to sit on the chair and, as part of my acted state of mind, I did not give them any trouble.
The guy in the suit came in. As far as I could tell, he was wearing the same suit over the same white shirt. It was cold in the room, and this time he kept his jacket on. Before he sat down, he raised his leg and rested it against the table, then nonchalantly retied his shoelaces. All the while I kept my eyes closed and held my head down, and only when he sat down did I pretend to notice him.
“I slept well,” he said. “Nice apartment, comfy bed, minibar filled to the brim. If I hadn’t been on the job, I’d have called an escort.”
He leaned forward, put both his arms on the table and looked me in the eyes when he said: “Okay, so I was misinformed about your wife. Appears you don’t have one. But you wish you had, right? There’s this whole world outside with lots of beautiful women. You’re an alien, but you look enough like a human being to have a shot. Too bad we are kind of... entangled in this business here.”
I had not heard him speak that long before. “What do you say we wrap this up as quickly as we can? Get it over with, so to speak. Huh? What do you think?”
I did my best to look at him with drooping eyelids and I let a trace of saliva escape the corner of my mouth. I think I was pretty convincing.
“Time can stop any minute now. We need to get dressed,” I mumbled. How did I make up this crap?
“Time,” he repeated, “will stop. Is that your doing? Do you want it to stop?”
There was nothing accusing in his tone this time. He was just fishing for more information.
“There is a man on campus that gathers old newspapers and resells them for a dime,” I tried. Somehow I had to convince him that I really was just a student from MIT that had had a brilliant idea. But at the same time, I didn’t want to rat out the others. I had to be honest, but not too honest.
“We made a ship out of the newspaper.” That was true. We had been sitting on the lawn in front of the main building, and that newspaper was our first attempt at modeling an abstract idea.
That got his attention. “A ship? Interesting. I’ve always wanted to fly. What was its purpose?”
“It was a pro-po-tot,” I stuttered, “a pototype.”
“Prototype,” he corrected. “For what?”
I was silent and looked at him as if I didn’t understand the question. I had to be careful not to give him the information that he wanted too quickly.
“Whose idea was it?” he tried.
“It was... it was Fred Astaire. He was tap dancing in Morse code.” That should get him thinking.
“Did they tell you we dug up your parents?” He changed the topic.
I did not answer.
“There was barely anything left to get a decent DNA sample. Had to break their jaws and dig into their teeth to get enough viable tissue.” He was trying to gross me out, to evoke an emotional response. Truth was, I hadn’t seen my parents for years. They did not react well when I came out of the closet at age sixteen, and contact had been bad ever since I had moved to Boston.
“DNA sample,” I repeated. Then I looked at my feet again and pretended to doze off. He waited for a few minutes, then left the room quietly. I heard someone else come in and sit down in the chair. The newcomer waited for a few minutes and then rudely tried to wake me up. They were trying to confuse me.
I raised my head and there was the FBI guy again. He was holding me by the shoulders, and his face filled the world that came through half-open eyelids. I mumbled something and made a purposely feeble attempt to fend him off. Apparently satisfied that I was showing signs of consciousness again, he released me and sat down.
“If you really are who you say you are, then could you explain some technological details of the spaceship for me?”
I nodded, but he wouldn’t understand a thing, and how could he expect a decent story when he thought I was drugged? I did my best to rise to the expectation, but it took me a lot of effort to make it sound as if I were still under the influence.
“My professor, he urges me to make things fly,” I started.
FBI-guy listened with interest.
“I was trying to make things not fall. If they do not fall, they fly. Like thoughts. They do not fall, unless someone thinks them out loud or writes them down.” I tried to speak as slowly as possible and to not use complicated words.
What had really happened was that I had investigated airplane designs for my PhD that minimized the effect of gravity not by reducing mass, but by reducing the effect of the gravitational field on mass; for example, by supercooling it. In the middle of the research, someone had come up with the idea to make airplane hulls out of anti-matter. It was a long shot, because the effects of anti-matter on gravity still haven’t been proven, but our small-scale prototype seemed to work.
“I tried to introduce non-stuff,” I babbled.
There were two problems: first of all, you cannot put anti-matter close to matter without getting some kind of reaction. A nasty physical reaction and, quite possibly, a bit of a boom. We struggled with that for a while until I came up with Hecket’s Law. I know you’re not supposed to name laws of physics after yourself, but Ron and Peter hadn’t seemed to mind.
Hecket’s Law states that wherever there is a positive and a negative force, there must also be a neutral force. So we did some experiments and eventually found a substance that was neither matter nor anti-matter. We jokingly called it neuter, short for neutral matter, and the name stuck. We used it to isolate the anti-matter, so it would not come into contact with any matter. It wasn’t easy; we had to do it all outside working hours but, fortunately, both Ron and Peter had access to the necessary equipment.
“Non-stuff?” the FBI-guy didn’t understand.
“Not matter,” I didn’t really explain.
“It doesn’t matter?” he misunderstood.
“Anti. Anti...” I tried to act as if more than two syllables were difficult. “Matter”
He looked at the mirror behind me. I didn’t know if he was asking for backup or if he was signaling them to pay attention.
The second problem we faced was how to negate the effect of the anti-matter so we could control altitude and make the plane land again. We fixed that by designing an on-board anti-matter engine. We found that we only needed to control small amounts of matter and anti-matter to be able to influence height.
It took us half a year of experiments to find the right balance, and that was just for the prototype. The real scale model took almost a year, and only because we knew what we were doing the second time.
“We made a spaceship,” I slipped up. Until that point I had taken care not to mention that there were others involved. Of course, FBI-guy noticed it immediately.
“We? Who else was involved?”
I hesitated, knowing I had to think carefully on my answer. “Yes, there’s Joe, who comes from Mars. We modeled the spaceship after the one he used to come here. And there’s Rick, the brother of the President. He can walk through walls.”
By now, Ron and Peter would have been long gone. They would have gone to Russia or China, countries that would never extradite anyone to the United States. Still, I’d rather keep their names to myself.
FBI-guy gestured towards something behind me again, and I imagined that people on the other side of the one-way mirror were now frantically crosschecking the names ‘Joe’ and ‘Rick’. I had been careful not to pick names of anyone I knew. Then he turned to me again and said, “Go on.”
Halfway into the building process, we decided not to use the traditional airplane design, but to go with the flying saucer. The symmetry of that shape made it easier to control the balance between matter and anti-matter. That design switch delayed our project even further. By the time we were finished, I was almost done getting my PhD and MIT had offered me a postdoc position. I had rejected offers from both Stanford and Harvard to be able to stay close to our project as long as it was a work in progress.
“We built the spaceship together. When it was finished, Joe had to go back to Mars and Rick went with him, so I had to fly the ship alone,” I told him. “But I could not fly it alone, and I crashed.”
That part was also true, although it had been more complicated than that. It was not difficult to control the ship’s balance, but I had overestimated myself. We had decided that Ron and Peter would stay on the ground to be able to better monitor the ship’s behavior, but the controls of the ship were too much to handle for one person. I had to simultaneously control the altitude, the direction and the speed.
When we chose to use the flying saucer design, we had not anticipated that it would be much more difficult to control than the typical airplane, which is damn convenient because it only flies in one direction. It’s the little things that kill.
* * *
FBI-guy was silent for a while, as if he had to digest what I had told him. I had done my best to mix the reality with drug-induced hallucination, so it would be hard for him to figure out what was true. But they had the spaceship; given time, they could understand what we had done.
“Do you think you could repair the spaceship, Mr. Hecket?” He tried to keep his voice neutral, but the eagerness was obvious.
“If the non-stuff did not leak out,” I replied, but if the anti-matter had leaked out, there would not be a spaceship anymore. Hell, there wouldn’t be an MIT anymore. Only when that thought crossed my mind, I realized what an awful weapon that ship was. Good thing we’d made it sturdy.
“And do you think your two friends would be willing to come back from Mars to help out?”
I knew that was a trick question. They would do anything in their power to find out who my accomplices were. “I don’t think the emperor will let them go,” I replied, and for now that seemed to satisfy him. No doubt he would come back to it later.
“Okay, Mr. Hecket,” he said in a concluding voice, “here’s what’s going to happen. Tomorrow we will take you to your spaceship and you can explain to us how you managed to make this wonderful piece of technology. We are done for today but, before I have you taken to your room, I was wondering if your friends are not allowed to leave Mars, can we at least contact them?”
See? That was sooner than I had expected, but I told you he would not let it rest.
“We can only communicate with our brains,” I tried. “Their frequency is tuned to mine.” Again, he didn’t pursue the matter.
FBI-guy gestured something towards the mirror and, a few seconds later, one of the goons that had brought me there came in and rudely grabbed my arm. I stood and let him lead me away.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Thom Arrell