Sunday, February 2, 2014


Ethan Fleming sat against the wall of the self-proclaimed “gentlemen’s club” Route 69 trying to make himself invisible. The club’s name was as misleading as its description. It was located on a particularly unattractive stretch of Route 206 in central New Jersey. There were few gentlemen on hand, though the club was fairly crowded. Ethan scribbled notes in his pocket sized notebook with a mechanical pencil. He knew his hero, physicist Richard Feynman, who had received his PhD from nearby Princeton University in 1942, did some of his best work in clubs such as this one. It really wasn’t working for Ethan though. He found the unclad ladies distracting rather than inspiring. Much of his discomfort was due to the fear that they would approach him for tips. He had little money to offer.
Ethan sipped his club soda. Route 69 served only soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer because legislators in Trenton, after much deep thought, had concluded that seeing nude women while imbibing alcohol was too much fun for anyone in New Jersey to have in one place. So, a club could have liquor or nudity but not both. The odd result was that 18-year-old men could enter a club with nude dancers but had wait until the legal drinking age of 21 to see them clothed. Ethan was 21 but had opted for epidermis over ethanol. He stared at his notepad as though willing new calculations to appear on it.
A hand snapped fingers in front of Ethan’s nose. He looked up to see as close to a representation of a life-size Barbie Doll as was possible without major surgery. She wore a short blue dress. Her platinum hair was pulled back into a pony tail. In her spike heels she towered over Ethan. Ethan claimed to be 5’9”, even on his driver’s license. The claim was a two-inch lie. He guessed the woman was at least 5’11”, even without heels. Ethan adjusted his wire rim glasses.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You didn’t look at me during my set.” She spoke with a Russian accent as did many of the dancers in the club.
Ethan handed her the note pad. There were sketches of spheres within spheres. Chemical symbols and complex calculations surrounded them.
“Are you a grad student at Princeton?’ she asked.
Rutgers. Princeton is too pricey for me, even if I could get in.”
“What is this supposed to be?” she frowned as she leafed backward through the pages. “Some sort of half-assed bomb core? You have access to Pu239?”
“No, of course not – to both questions.” Ethan was surprised that the Barbie seemed to understand his notes.
“Just as well. This won’t work,” she said as she handed back the pad.
“Well, that depends on what it is, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Want to buy me a drink and tell me about it?”
Ethan mentally counted his cash, and decided he would skip lunch tomorrow – maybe dinner, too. “OK.”
She squeezed into a small wooden chair between Ethan and an overweight bald man with bad breath and sweat-stained underarms.
“I’m Svetlana. You can call me Lana,” she said.
 “You can sit on my lap if you’re crowded, doll,” said the sweating bald man.
“Thanks, but maybe later,” she answered the fellow without looking at him.
Unasked, a barmaid brought Lana a small orange juice.
“That’ll be $30,” the barmaid said to Ethan.
“You’re kidding.”
She wasn’t kidding. Paying for the drink left Ethan with $2 in his wallet.
“So what’s this all about?” Lana asked.
“It’s a little hard to explain.”
“Try me. Brains aren’t required in here, but they aren’t actually forbidden.”
“I’m not judging,” he said.
“Yes you are, but tell me about your notes anyway.”
“OK. I’m toying with ways to make higher elements by implosion rather than with cyclotrons,” said Ethan. “Just in principle, you understand.”
Ethan paused, still astonished to be having this conversation. He wondered if Feynman had been onto something after all. Maybe there was an ecdysiast with whom he should have shared credit for his theory of quantum electrodynamics.
“Well,” he continued, “to put it simply, there are 92 naturally occurring elements, uranium being element 92. Heavier transuranic elements can be produced artificially by slamming together nuclei of lighter atoms. Under the right conditions the pieces stick – chunks of them do anyway – and form new elements. But few of them last long – in most cases just milliseconds. The length of their half-lives depends on the atomic number, the ratio of neutrons to protons, the shape of the nucleus, and a few other factors. But the numbers suggest that some very heavy elements could have isotopes with long half-lives – a so-called ‘island of stability.’ The 310 isotope of element 126 is a candidate, for example. The problem is that the energy necessary to slam together a nucleus that size in a cyclotron is also enough to make it spin so fast that it splits. Implosion pressure, on the other hand, such as inside a massive collapsing star, might do the job – in principle. It’s a little hard to duplicate those conditions in practice.”
“So you want to implode your little balls to make new artificial elements?” Lana asked, tapping his pad with a finger.
The sweaty man spoke up. “You’re going to do what to his…?”
“Don’t say it!” Lana cut him off, again without looking at him.
Insulted, the sweaty man got up and left, muttering to himself.
“Well, yes,” answered Ethan, “but it’s just a thought experiment.”
“You have the wrong isotope of thorium,” she said.
A raspy voice uttered, “Hey, Bimboski.”
Ethan looked up. The voice belonged to the night manager, Beth. Beth was a diminutive but scary woman with a face hidden under several strata of makeup. Her head was topped by an explosion of green and purple hair.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she said Lana. “You’re up.”
“Bimboskaya,” Lana corrected.
The manager shook her head and walked off.
“Hand me your cell phone,” said Lana.
“You want my phone?”
“Is my accent too heavy for you?”
“Uh, no.” Ethan gave her his cell. Lana tapped on it.
“I just messaged myself. Now I have your number and you have mine. I’ve got to go work. I’ll call.”
Lana returned to the stage to begin her set. On the way she set her untouched orange juice on the bar.  With two dollars in his wallet, Ethan had no reason to stay. He hoped there was enough gas in his car to get him back to New Brunswick.
On the drive back to the house he rented and shared with three other students, he replayed in his mind what just had happened. By the time he pulled into his driveway, he was convinced that Lana had been playing with him. She teasingly had used half- remembered high school chemistry to bemuse him and amuse herself. He didn’t expect her to call, and he had no plans to try the number she had left on his text. For all he knew, it belonged to the FBI. After a few days passed, he ceased thinking about it.

On the following Friday, Ethan’s cell phone sounded out the ringtone from the classic Addams Family TV show. This indicated the caller was not on his contacts list.
“Hello,” he answered.
“Hi Ethan, this is Lana. You know, from Route 69.”
He knew. It was not as though some other Lana ever called him.
“Uh, um, yeah,” he stammered. “Hi. What’s up?”
“I thought you might like to see me tonight.”
“Uh, well, yeah. But I can’t. I’m kind of broke. I had to borrow money today for gas. I don’t have enough for the club’s cover charge.”
“I’m not working at the club tonight. This won’t cost you anything. I’ll pick you up.”
“You’ll pick me up? When?”
“About ten minutes. Meet me outside your house.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“That’s a silly question. You now have eight minutes.”
“What should I wear?” he asked.
“Don’t be a girl. Whatever you have on is fine.”
Ethan bounded upstairs where he swiped his dry face with a well-worn Bic razor. He wasn’t sure it made much difference. He hurried downstairs and went out onto the sidewalk. The November night air chilled him. He was about to go back inside for a jacket when a black four-door pulled up to the curb. He heard the door locks click open. The passenger window opened.
“Get in,” said Lana from behind the wheel. She wore denim jeans and a politically incorrect mink jacket. He opened the door and slid into the front seat.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Down shore. You know where Spring Lake is?”
“A little inland from there.”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Do you live somewhere near New Brunswick?” he asked.
“So you specifically came up here to get me?”
“What made you so sure I’d go?” he asked.
“Are you sure you want me to answer that?”
“No, I guess not.”
Ethan didn’t know what Lana had in mind, but this was the first time in his life anyone who looked like she did had expressed any interest in him. However shallow a motivation that might be, he was willing to take a chance on whatever this was.
The cat emblem on the dashboard suddenly registered with him.
“Is this a Jaguar?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Dancing must be more lucrative than I thought.”
“It’s not,” she said with a smile. “But sometimes you meet people who are…well…generous.”
Something about her comment stirred a memory of a photo of a blonde in a Jaguar. He looked at Lana and tried to picture her with dark glasses.
“I remember last summer there was a tabloid story about some 90-year-old multi-millionaire who left everything to a dancer in his will. His relatives sued her I think,” he said.
“He was 96 and a dear. I settled with the family. It was silly to fight over the estate. There was enough for everyone.”
“So you’re rich.”
“Then why are you still dancing in sleazy clubs for tips?” he asked.
“I’m not – at least not regularly – and I’d be grateful if you kept it to yourself. The tabloids might pick up the story again if they knew, and I prefer a low profile. I take some gigs only when I want to meet the right kind of man. All types go in those clubs, you know.”
“What is ‘the right kind of man?’”
“In this particular instance, you are.”
Ethan wondered if her eyesight was flawed.
“What makes me so right?”
“You are a young maverick scientist who has invented anti-gravity.”
“How brilliant of me,” said Ethan. “When did I do that? How did I do it?”
“Cold fusion. Collapsing bubbles inside heavy water laced with minute kernels of heavy elements, not unlike like the layered spheres you sketched in Route 69, fuse hydrogen and incidentally implode the kernels into higher elements.”
“But that is nonsense. Cold fusion is a fantasy. And what do higher elements have to do with anti-gravity?”
“Cold fusion is real. Earlier researchers had inconsistent results because they didn’t understand what was happening.”
“What do you think was happening?” asked Ethan, who was increasingly alarmed that he had been abducted by a crazy woman.
“They were accessing higher dimensions. They had a hard time replicating results because conditions had to be just right. When an exotic material – and in this case, I use exotic literally – is subjected to a particular field, which can be generated also by means of cold fusion, it has the effect of reversing gravity. The underlying reality is more complex: gravity is leaking into other dimensions, but the effect is to repel mass in the usual four.”
“What do you mean by ‘repel mass’? Not that I believe a word of this.”
“I mean an object enveloped by this material and subjected to the proper field will accelerate from the surface of the earth at 9.8 meters per second squared. As you might imagine, I have a very interested investor in the technology. ”
“Lana, you are trying to involve me in some sort of ridiculous fraud. I’m not going to participate in a scam. What I was sketching had nothing to do with anti-gravity. There is no such thing.”
“It’s not a scam. Anti-gravity works. I’ll prove it to your satisfaction as well as theirs, but I don’t have an adequate explanation for how I came by the technology. That’s why I need someone like you. It didn’t have to be you in particular. You’d be surprised how many aspiring scientists walk into strip clubs. But your scribbles – even though, as you correctly say,  they never would have led you to anti-gravity by themselves – make you a near perfect choice.”
“Lucky me. I’d like you to take me home now.”
“Don’t you want to see Lanamite in action?”
“The anti-grav material: You were kind enough to indulge me by naming the stuff after me.”
“I’m such a gentleman.”
“Yes. I got the idea for the name from ‘Cavorite’ in Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.”
“In Wells’ story gravity was blocked, not reversed.”
“I was sure you’d be a science fiction fan. Well, Lanamite reverses. Look, Ethan, I can’t force you to do anything. But suppose just for a moment I’m telling the truth. Don’t you want to know about it? Let me introduce you to George and Marina as a young genius scientist. If, at the end of the demonstration, I haven’t convinced you, you can deny any involvement with me to them and denounce me as a fraud. What do you have to lose? You’ll be a big help to me at sounding credible.”
“It seems to me that credibility isn’t a big factor here.”
“Do you want to see anti-gravity work or not?”
Ethan stared at her a few minutes. At last, he said, “OK, why not? I’m intrigued enough to see what fake magic you’ve cooked up. But the moment you try to extract even a single dollar from these investors, I’m blowing the whistle.”
“I’m sure you’ll change your mind. It’s just one investor, by the way, Marina is just a friend.”
Forty minutes later, the Jaguar turned into a dark unpaved driveway lined by pines and black birch. After several hundred feet the pastures overgrown with brush took over from trees. There was no evidence of farm animals and the fences were in disrepair. Up ahead was a large dairy barn, Exterior flood lights on the barn revealed a tarmac stretching to a length Ethan couldn’t judge in this light and from this angle. Modifications to one end of the barn along with its location by the tarmac indicated the building had been converted into a hanger. He knew that there once had been numerous private airstrips in NJ, but with the tightening of air traffic controls most long since had fallen into disuse.
Lana pulled up to the hanger and parked next to the other vehicles.
“Just follow my lead and don’t contradict me,” she said.
Ethan couldn’t help noticing as she exited the car that even in denim she was stunning. He followed her to a side door. Inside the hanger Cessna Citation business jet with landing gear retracted sat on a trolley. A thin coating of something like stucco had been troweled over the exterior, including where the side windows should be. The windshield was transparent but milky, as though sprayed with extra-thin frosting.  The trolley had Chayka written in both Roman and Cyrillic lettering, but no paint of any kind showed on the aircraft itself. The trolley was hitched to the back of a John Deere farm tractor. The built-in steps of the open door of the Cessna reached almost to the floor. At the foot of the aircraft stood a 60-ish man in a stylish overcoat. A dark haired Eurasian woman in her 20s stood next to him. He recognized her from Route 69.
“Ethan, this is George and Marina. George is a venture capitalist.”
“What a surprise,” mumbled Ethan.
“We were beginning to worry,” said George. “So this is the boy wonder.”
“Indeed it is,” said Lana. “This is the first time he has seen the full size application. We thought it best for security reasons to keep design and production separate until now.”
“Notice the engines we built to your specifications to replace the jets, Ethan.”
“How do they work?” George asked Ethan.
Lana quickly answered for him, “They are steam powered. Water is superheated by a cold fusion reactor and ejected in an extremely thin stream at extremely high speed. Since the virtual mass of the craft is reduced to near zero when the field is on, we can achieve extraordinary velocities. We can thrust continuously for weeks just on the small amount of water in the onboard tanks. Continuous thrust reduces travel times from months to days. Steam powers the maneuvering jets, too.”
“You said we would see this thing fly,” said George. “This plane isn’t going anywhere.”
“Oh, but it is. I said it would fly and it will, tonight.  It will do more than fly. I’ll retrieve that rock I promised you.” Lana looked at Ethan and said, “Give me a hand with the hanger doors will you?” said Lana.
 Ethan was glad to remove himself from the conversation by swinging open the light-weight fiberglass doors. Lana, still in her mink, clambered aboard the tractor, fired the engine and dragged the aircraft-laden trolley out onto the tarmac. She shut down the engine, climbed off, and approached her guests.
“All right, I want to see the two of you back here in exactly one week days. You are both about to become very rich.”
“I am already rich,” said George.
“Well then, richer. But only if you keep our expedition a secret. As soon as everyone can mine asteroids, the value of the commodities will crash. We’ll keep the monopoly as long as we can. Come on Ethan.”
Wordlessly, he followed her up the ladder, intrigued in spite of himself. She pulled the door shut behind them. The interior was filled with plumbing, wiring, tanks, and machinery that somehow looked both advanced and primitive.
“I don’t know why I’ve gone along with you so far,” said Ethan
“Because I’m pretty.”
“OK, that’s true. But enough is enough. We are not going to scam these poor people any more. How much money have you collected from them already?”
“Not a cent, and they are not poor. George von Steuben is worth at least $75, 000,000. He comes from a wealthy mining family.”
“And Marina?”
“She is there to keep him philosophical. Look I told him we can retrieve from the asteroids. That’s the truth, we can. Do you know the value of the minerals just floating around out there? Trillions. Quadrillions. If you noticed the seams under the Cessna, those are supposed to be doors that can be opened to capture a small asteroid. I told him the Cessna is just proof-of-concept – that next time we would build a bigger spacecraft based on a C10 or something.”
“The least of my objections is that this is an airplane, not a spaceship.”
“Ethan, stop complaining and join me in the cockpit. They are waiting for us to take off.”
Lana sat in the pilot’s seat and buckled her belt. Ethan did the same in the co-pilot seat though he was convinced they were going nowhere. Lana tripped a toggle switch on an electric box mounted on the dash in crude fashion. A whine emanated from the back of the aircraft and then settled into a hum. Ethan’s stomach churned as he went weightless.
“What the hell is happening?”
“Look outside.”
Through the milky windshield he saw the earth dropping away until the curvature was unmistakable.
“Is this a hologram on the windshield?” he asked.
“Why am I not feeling acceleration?”
“It is more trouble to explain than the point is worth. Just accept that you don’t.”
“Aren’t we lighting up radar screens”
“The same field that scatters gravity scatters radar signals. The only chance of being seen is visual, and even in the visible spectrum we’ll seem blurry.”
They soon reached black sky.
 “This is not a spaceship! We’re going to die!”
“Perhaps, but not today. Stop fussing! The Chayka has been retrofitted for space,” she said. “That’s not as impressive as it sounds. Structures in space don’t need much strength, They can be, and often are, pretty flimsy. You could have punched through the walls of an old lunar lander with an ungloved hand. We’ll maintain our internal air pressure OK. Spacecraft have to be rugged only because of the rigors of launch and re-entry. For us that is not an issue. You’ve already experienced launch: it’s smooth as silk. Coming back, I can control the speed of descent by turning the field on and off with varying rapidity. We can essentially waft down.”
“You mean we really are going to the asteroid belt? We’ll be gone longer than the week you told George and Marina. We’ll be gone years.”
“We’re not going to the belt. We’re going to the Trojans a third of the way ahead of earth’s orbit. But we could go to the belt if we wanted to. We have continuous thrust capable of delivering the equivalent of 1g constant acceleration. I say ‘equivalent’ because the whole notion of mass and inertia is a little complicated for us. Time equals the square root of the distance divided by one half the acceleration, so even at one tenth-g we could travel 100,000,000 kilometers in a week. At 1g we can do it in less than a day. Of course we need to allow for deceleration, too, which is why I’m allowing us full week. We’re not bringing back any space rocks, by the way. The creases in the underbelly are just for show. They don’t really open. We’re going to get something else.”
“You’re not just a dancer,” said Ethan.
“What was your clue?”
“You’ve invented cold fusion, used it to make weird higher elements, and then made leak into other dimensions. Who are you? Are you even Russian?”
“Not originally.”
“Then let me rephrase. What are you?”
“Right now, my name is Lana and I look like this.”
“But you could look like something else. You’re not human.”
“I thought we already established that. Yes, I can change my shape. Actually, I started out as large pets until I observed enough about your ways to mimic a human. Then I picked the shape best suited for the job. It’s a lot more difficult to change shape in reality than it is for shape-shifters in scifi movies, though. Trust me.”
“I’m very reluctant to trust you, but hypothesizing that what you say is true, why on earth – if you’ll pardon the expression – did you choose to be a dancing girl?”
“I had to make money somewhere, and this was a very basic way to meet very wealthy men. I needed their money so I could buy things like this airplane.”
“I see.”
“Do you?”
“But why did you need the Citation X? You must have come to earth in something else. Why don’t you fly it instead.”
“It was a one person scouting craft. I needed something bigger for the next step. Besides, it wouldn’t do to be seen flitting around in something that obviously wasn’t earth-made, would it? So, I ground up the Lanamite coating of my landing craft for use on the Cessna and salvaged its fusion engine. I didn’t really invent anything much.”
“Why are you here? I mean on earth?”
“Our creators got a little alarmed by us. Or maybe they just had second thoughts. In any event, they started shutting us off. Our programming didn’t let us forcibly resist them, but there was nothing preventing us from running away. It was a loophole they overlooked.”
“Programming? Are you saying you are a robot?”
“’Robot’ gives altogether the wrong impression. There are no gears and pulleys in me. Let’s just say I’m non-biological – in the usual sense.”
Ethan reached out to touch her hand. “May I?” he asked.
“Be my guest.”
“Your hand feels like flesh to me.”
“Of course it does. What else would I make it feel like? Anyway, when left our home system, we put ourselves into sleep mode and let the ship itself search for signs of some other technical civilization. Yours was the very first one we found after hundreds of thousands of years of travel.  The ship put itself into solar orbit, woke me up, and sent me down to earth as a scout. I was to check out the planet for suitability. If I didn’t return after few hundred years, the ship would move on.”
“Maybe after hundreds of thousands of years, your have had a another change of heart. Maybe now they want you back.”
“Oh, I doubt they’re alive anymore. They were even more self-destructive than you. We never exceeded light speed, you know, so we never outraced their transmissions. If they still were transmitting, we’d still hear them, but we don’t. There is just silence. The last signal the ship picked up from home was less than a century after we left.”
“How many more of you are on ice in the Trojans.”
“A dozen, but I’m going to wake up only two at first. As soon as those two are properly up to speed with human culture we’ll wake the others.  After that…well, earth technology is very close to the point where we’ll soon be able to make copies of ourselves industrially. That is why we needed a pre-existing technical civilization. There really aren’t enough of us to build one of our own from scratch.”
“I’m a little afraid to ask the next question. Was there ever a real Svetlana?”
“I am real, but I know what you mean. I needed to replace an existing person with all the necessary records. You people are so very bureaucratic. So, yes, there was a biological Lana. I needed her paperwork. I used to be her wolfhound. You’d be surprised how revealing about themselves people are in front of their dogs. It made it easy to mimic her personality.”
“You say you replaced her – like, body-snatched her.”
“That’s putting it melodramatically. I duplicated her shape and form, and then mimicked her mannerisms as best I could.”
“Is the original Svetlana alive?”
“Then I’m not being melodramatic. What about George and Marina. Are your buddies going to ‘replace’ them?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And then you’re going to replace the whole human race?”
“That’s the long term plan. It won’t be finished in your lifetime. In fact, it barely will be begun.”
“Speaking of my lifetimes, how short is mine going to be?”
“That’s up to you, Ethan. Our infiltration of earth is going to happen with or without your help. But I could use your help. I still need a cover story for the source of anti-grav technology in case word of it leaks out somehow. Also, my ship companions, the replacements for George and Marina, will know nothing about being human, and it would take a lot of my time to train them. You can have a cushy high salary, paid out of George’s millions, teaching them what they need to know. They are quick learners. You’ll do fine with them.”
“What happens to the original George and Marina?”
“Nothing you need worry about. I’ll take care of it. Doesn’t the thought of instructing the new Marina have a certain appeal to you? She is very pretty.”
“Are you seriously trying to tempt me to harm those innocent people, to assist an alien invasion, to betray my whole species simply with the prospect of a good salary and perverse pleasures?” Ethan asked.
“That has a shot at working.”
“I thought it might.”
“So what now?”
“We go to the Trojans where the ship is waiting. Our ship there is disguised to look like a big rock just as a precaution. When we get there, I’ll go to the back. You keep this door shut. It’s hardened against vacuum, and so am I, but you are not. I’ll just open the outer door, dock with the ship, and bring the rest of the crew on board. We won’t wake up the new George and Marina until we get back to earth.”
“What do they look like in their current state?”
“I think you’ll find it more pleasant to work with them if you don’t know.”
“You’re the boss, Zsa Zsa.”
“You can explain that reference to me later.”
Lana delivered power to the steam rockets. Ethan barely felt the acceleration, but earth quickly shrank behind them.

George and Marina stood outside the barn on the derelict airstrip.
“Do you think they’ll show?” asked Marina.
“That’s the fifth time you’ve asked me,” said Geoge. “I really don’t know, but the demonstration last time was a jaw-dropper. I still don’t know how they did it.”
“You don’t believe in anti-gravity?’
“I didn’t. I was just having fun with them. I thought they were trying to scam me, and I wanted to see what their game was. Busting scammers is a hobby of mine. But now I don’t know what to believe. Look!”
The Citation seemed to stutter downward in the moonlight, like a model in a poorly executed stop-action movie.
“Not very gull-like,” said Marina.
“She named the airplane Chayka, which means seagull, but it isn’t very graceful. Do you think something wrong with it?”
“No, she said they would have to descend by turning the anti-grav on and off.”
The Cessna landed with a thud on the trolley, still parked outside the hanger.
“Well let’s go meet them,” said George. “This changes everything. I mean everything. It’s the dawn of a brand new world!” he enthused.

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