Doug Collins tried to calm his hammering heart while Melissa checked out the string trick, but as the seconds built up without remark, he realized he was pretty much screwed. A first date had only one objective: impress the girl enough to earn a second date. And Doug had chosen to impress her with a weighted string dangling unsupported at a forty-five degree angle.
Idiot, he thought.
Melissa Reynolds stood up straight from her close inspection of Doug’s portable demonstration rig and smiled at him. “This is the promised mad science?”
He spread his hands and shrugged, placating. “I don’t quite recall promising to show you ‘mad’ science.”
She came close and took one of his hands in her own. “You didn’t need to promise me mad science, but you did make that promise. It was cute, only I never imagined you actually were working on something like . . . all this.” Melissa waved her other hand at the shutdown lab and the shielded test chamber Doug had brought them to. Then she nodded to the gadget and its jiggling, askew string. “Why doesn’t it hang straight down? Magic? Illusion?”
Doug hazarded a relieved grin of his own. “Way better: impossible physics! I know it doesn’t look like much, but forcing the string to hang at an angle like that changes everything.”
He moved as close to her as he could, trying to figure out how to somehow spin the details of his experiment into a prelude for a kiss. But the opportunity was snatched from him when the lights in the lab outside the test chamber came on. Doug and Melissa looked up when four figures entered the outer lab.
In the lead was Neal Lafleur, one of the lab’s many VPs.
Doug felt an embarrassed heat rise in his cheeks, caught by management showing off to a date while the lab was on official shutdown.
The other three men with Lafleur were a mystery, though: a tall, refined gentleman, a tech-geek, and an immense man who looked to have been hewn from granite.
Doug sensed Melissa stiffen at his side and grip his arm tightly when the four interlopers saw them and came to an abrupt halt. Lafleur’s face colored and, if anything, he appeared even more guilty and shocked than Doug felt.
Melissa spoke low, her voice leaden with worry and warning, “Doug . . .”
The unknown gentleman’s eyes narrowed. “So much for a clean operation. Augustus, would you mind dealing with this little hiccup?”
“On it, Boss.” The massive man’s voice rumbled like crunching gravel, but he moved swiftly enough. He stepped forward, reached into his ill-fitted jacket, and pulled a pistol.
Melissa shouted, “Down!” in an authoritative tone Doug did not know she possessed, but he complied.
They both dropped while two shots rang out, peppering the perforated-steel wall behind them. Doug and Melissa cried out, but they did not freeze. Melissa dove to hide behind the solid isolation table holding Doug’s gadget. Doug himself slid forward, staying low, and hit the emergency secure button right outside the test chamber’s entrance.
Two more shots spaanged off the stainless steel doorframe next to him.
Doug leapt back inside before the door slid shut on smooth hydraulics and, for a brief instant, he locked eyes with the deep cold gaze of the gentleman who had just ordered them killed.
Those eyes lacked even a hint of mercy or compassion.
The gentleman—known only by the alias “Octavius”—glared at the shut test chamber door barring him from his objective and ground his teeth in frustration. I am surrounded by fools, he thought. He snapped his fingers and pointed at a keypad next to the armored door. “Julius, open please.”
The tech geek waddled forward and popped the keypad off with deft, quiet moves without saying a thing.
Satisfied someone knew what they were doing, Octavius turned a basilisk glare upon his equivalently aliased subordinate Augustus. “What part of ‘Take care of this hiccup’ implies I want you to start shooting from across the lab?”
“You always give me crap for going kinetic, until it turns out going kinetic first really was the best choice.” Augustus returned his pistol to its shoulder holster and shrugged his jacket back into place.
Octavius shook his head. “At the very least, get closer before you start blasting away. You might have hit the prototype. You certainly didn’t hit them.”
Augustus ignored the jab, so Octavius turned his attention to Lafleur. “Well?”
Lafleur’s eyes were wide and beads of sweat stippled his brow. “I closed the lab myself! No one was supposed to be here this late at night, least of all Collins and some bimbo. I mean, he’s just a junior researcher. He’s never displayed much initiative or been found anywhere he wasn’t supposed to be. Believe me, his being here is totally random. Octavius, you can’t blame me for this!”
“Yes, I can. You were paid for three things: all the research, the drive itself, and discretion. We currently lack two-thirds of those, and I blame you entirely.”
“I can fix this. I’ll talk them out!”
“You can try. Are we exposed, though? Can they call out from within there?”
Lafleur shook his head. “No. It’s a Faraday cage, with only an intercom to the outer lab. There is an external network connection, but it only ties into phase two’s live traffic and shipping database—there’s no way to contact anyone over that.”
Octavius nodded and turned to Julius. The taciturn techie looked up from the multimeter buried in the keypad’s wires, frowned, and shrugged, silent as always.
Augustus grunted and said, “‘Our little friend in there must have disabled it from his side already. Unless he reconnects it, we’re gonna have to burn through this mother.”
“Fine,” Octavius answered. “You and Julius get started on that. Mr. Lafleur and I will try our hands at diplomacy.”
Doug stepped back from the mess he had made of the door mechanism’s wires, still breathing heavily. Only then did he notice the line of fiery pain that streaked across his left shoulder. “Ow . . .”
Melissa peeked out from behind the isolation table supporting the gadget. The muted shock and wary appraisal that showed on her face disappeared behind a mask of professional concern. She rose and went to Doug’s side, inspecting the wound he had earned. “You’re not bleeding too badly. Looks like a bullet just grazed you. Do you have a first aid kit?”
“Of course . . . uh . . . oh, it’s right on the other side of that door.”
She gave him a tight smile. “That figures. We’ll just have to make do, shall we?” Melissa unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and fashioned it into a makeshift bandage.
Doug winced when she secured it over the fresh wound the bullet had made along his shoulder. “Must be my lucky day. I happen to bring an ER nurse to the lab on the one night shooting breaks out.” He started to shake.
“Your lucky day? What about me?” Melissa’s smile softened, becoming less the upbeat mask of a professional nurse treating a patient and more the sly expression a girl reserves for her guy. “Most fellas just try to get me drunk as fast as possible. You offer up super-science and deadly peril. This is way better than drinks and a movie.”
He shook his head. “You seem to be handling all of this very well. Better than me at least.”
She shrugged. “I think you’re doing fine. Anyway, it’s not the first time I’ve been shot at.”
“I worked as a paramedic while putting myself through nursing school. Not everybody is happy when sirens and flashing lights show up, even if they’re attached to an ambulance.” She finished with the bandage, patted him on the arm, then fished out her phone and dialed 911.
Doug smiled in apology. “Yeah, sorry. This place is shielded against all signals. There’s no way for us to call out other than the intercom.”
As if on cue, the intercom crackled to life. Neal Lafleur’s voice sounded out in the test chamber. “Collins? You need to open the door. We can work this whole thing out to everybody’s benefit if you’ll just cooperate.”
Doug felt a new, different heat rising in his face and sudden anger displaced his fear. His shakes forgotten, he crossed the test chamber and jabbed a savage thumb on his own intercom button. “Neal, you weasel, I can’t believe you’re helping to steal one of your own projects!”
A new voice sounded from the speakers. “Mr. Collins . . . Doug, my name is Octavius, and I’m the leader of the men outside. Mr. Lafleur is telling the truth. We can all profit if you’ll only open the door and give us the prototype for the reactionless drive.”
Doug turned to Melissa and mouthed Octavius with a question in his eyes. She shrugged and shook her head.
He keyed the mike again. “Well, Octagon, only an ass like Neal would call the gadget a reactionless drive. It makes me wonder what other lies he’s fed you. How about you guys just take off, get your stories straight, and we’ll wait here for the police to arrive.”
“The only one lying is you, Mr. Collins. We both know the police aren’t coming. The only way out of there is through us, and if we have to cut our way in, you’ll find me in a very uncooperative mood.”
Doug turned to Melissa again, who came close. He tried to smile, but it failed. “I’m really sorry. I just wanted to give you a memorable evening.”
She grinned back. “Oh, you’ve got memorable covered. The funny thing is, you didn’t need to do any of this. . . . I’ve been waiting for you to ask me out ever since I moved into your building. . . . You’re a good guy, Doug. The way you leapt up to shut that door, with no fear and no second-guessing, that just proved it to me. You should have more confidence in yourself.”
His smile became a bit more authentic, if melancholy. “Great.” He gestured to the intercom. “I can’t make this decision for both of us. What do you think?”
Her eyes widened. “I think we’re both dead without that door, whether we open it or they do. I’ve seen the results from his type of ‘cooperation,’ both in the field and the ER. They aren’t pretty.”
Doug nodded and keyed the intercom.
“Screw you, Ocho.”
Octavius’ teeth ground when Doug’s contemptible voice sounded in the lab. He stepped away from the intercom and gestured past Lafleur to Julius and Augustus, who were busy setting up the gas rig for an exothermic burning bar next to the chamber door. Both men looked up.
Octavius growled. “Start cutting your way in. And when you get done with the door, cut down that pair as well.”
“On it, Boss.” Augustus nodded and twisted the valve on the gas bottle while the ever-silent Julius hit the striker to light the bar.
Octavius smiled at the growing horror upon Lafleur’s face.
Melissa turned to Doug when they heard the hiss of a torch beyond the protective door. “Damn it, I don’t even know why they’re trying to kill us. What is this gadget?”
Doug forced himself to turn away from a spot which had just begun to glow red on the wall. He led her back to the string trick. “This is a portable demonstrator rig to show off mediated momentum transfer, the non-localized transfer of momentum through a virtual 4D collision.”
“That went right over me.”
He nodded in apology. “Sorry. Do you remember any of Newton’s Laws of Motion?”
She squinted, an unsure expression on her face. “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction?”
Doug smiled. “That’s the one. I knew I liked you. Now, do you know what a wormhole is?”
She nodded. “That’s easy. It’s a shortcut through space and time, connecting two places that are normally far apart.”
He blinked. “Unshakeable medic, hot nurse, and closeted sci-fi fan. I . . . I think I may be in love.” Doug grinned wider.
Melissa smiled and squeezed his hand upon the table. “Focus, physicist!”
“Right! Well, that’s what this is, momentum transfer through sort of a virtual wormhole. Normally, to change something’s motion, it has to interact with the environment. Billiard balls don’t move until something collides with them, and rockets don’t move unless they’re shoving mass really fast out their back end as thrust. That’s Conservation of Momentum and it’s the Law. Problem is that law makes for inefficient rockets. You have to carry around all that reaction mass to shove out the back end, making your rocket 99 percent fuel and 1 percent payload, limiting how long you can accelerate. But if you could create something like a reaction-less drive that didn’t violate conservation of momentum, you’d pretty much change everything.”
Doug pointed to the jiggling string, hanging down at a taut forty-five degrees to the vertical. “Which brings us to the string trick. This weighted string is pushed off from the vertical by an unbalanced force with no apparent origin. It jiggles there, against the constant pull of gravity, without anything pushing or pulling on it and without expending any jets of material. It looks reactionless, but it’s really not.”
Melinda nodded slowly. “Because . . . wormholes?”
Doug picked up a fat object like a large remote control with too many buttons. He gestured to a pair of spinning flyweights on the table that shook in time to the jiggling of the string. Pressing a button on the controller, the string swung down and swayed to a normal vertical hang, and the spinning flyweights smoothed out. “Right. We call them congruence points: similar to wormholes in that they connect two separated points in spacetime, but nothing physical can pass through them. Instead, they put two things that aren’t touching into brief contact with one another, setting up a virtual collision.”
He aimed the controller at the weight on the end of the hanging string and hit a button. A red laser dot lit upon the weight. “First we designate a target. Then we designate a momentum source.” He turned the controller on the spinning flyweights, where a laser illuminated one of the weights while it spun around. Instantly, the flyweights jostled and the weighted string jumped to one side as if struck, even though they were not touching. Each time the flyweights swung past that spot, the string reacted, until it once more swung to a jostling forty-five degree angle to the vertical.
Doug continued. “It’s not truly reactionless, because there is a collision, but it’s non-local, with the momentum transfer mediated through the congruence point instead of an actual contact. Either way, attach a similar rig to a vehicle and you’ll have what is, for all intents and purposes, a reactionless drive. It’s a definite game changer.”
His lecture done, their situation reasserted itself. Sparks exploded from the wall above the door, chopping through one of the bars locking the door into place. Melissa split her frantic attention between the wild sparks and the table in front of her. “Okay, time’s up. We have to make this thing work for us instead of just getting us killed. We can’t jump through one of these wormhole congruence points?”
“No, they’re like a four-dimensional virtual solid, contact but no passage.”
“Can we . . . momentum us a new way out of here?”
“No! The only sources we have are these flyweights and they’re way too small.” Doug thought for a moment, and then pounded his hand on the isolation table. “But there is the momentum net!”
He dropped the controller and ran from the table, going to a desktop workstation on the other side of the chamber.
Melissa followed asking, “The what net?”
Doug uncoiled a long USB cable from the back of the workstation and stretched the cable over to connect with the controller. “The momentum net is for phase two, when we get away from strings and start moving larger masses. It’s a live database maintained by the Department of Transportation showing the position and instantaneous momentum of every freight train, ship, plane, and long-haul trucker in the US.”
He picked up the controller and pushed a button. The string fell again and the flyweights smoothed out. Then he aimed the controller at the center of the wall opposite the door, which he was fairly certain was an exterior wall. A laser dot flashed upon it. “First, we designate a target.”
He put down the controller and crossed back over to the workstation. Melissa followed and saw him scrolling through a list of vehicles, with their positions, velocities, and registered weights. Doug smiled. “Then we designate a momentum source.” He clicked on one vehicle and turned to Melissa. “How do you feel about catching a train? Watch out. There might be a slight bump.”
The conductor of the northbound CSX freight train out of Syracuse, New York dozed in his seat while his trainee monitored the engine with one eye and looked over his certification course with the other, all by the light of the full moon overhead. Then the train lurched back, throwing them both forward. Each man, now awake, looked around wildly. Everything seemed fine.
“What the hell was that?”
Octavius and Lafleur picked themselves off the floor where they had fallen when the building shook. Octavius looked at the two men cutting with the bright actinic burning bar. They had both kept their footing, but Julius’ aim-point with the torch had skittered off and almost burned through Augustus’ hand. Now they just glared at one another through their welding goggles.
Their boss growled. “Keep cutting and get that door open!” Octavius turned on Lafleur and demanded, “What the hell was that?”
Lafleur’s wild gaze darted about the room. “How should I know?” Understanding seemed to dawn on him, and he turned fearful eyes on Octavius. “Collins has jumped to phase two. He’s using large momentum sources to bust out of the test chamber.”
Octavius yelled in frustration. He reached into his own jacket and pulled out a pistol. “This was supposed to have been a simple operation.” He gestured with the pistol from Lafleur to Julius and Augustus. “Make sure they stay on task!” Octavius stalked toward the lab’s doorway.
“Where are you going?” Lafleur cried, following him halfway out of the lab.
“To the other side, in case they make it out!”
Doug and Melissa stared agog at the wall of the chamber. The sheet metal was punched inward several inches in a wide circle, with popped rivets revealing insulation, wiring, and cinder blocks from the exterior wall. Plaster dust filled the chamber. Had the force of the train punched through completely, the room would have been filled with a deadly shower of debris.
Melissa gestured to the bulging wall. “That was a small bump?!”
He gave her a shrug. “In hindsight, picking a northbound train was a bad idea. I’ll definitely go southbound next time.” He began to set up the next congruence point.
She remained quiet while he worked, but then she looked to the door, where the sparking had punched through another locking bar. Only one barrier was left. “Doug, even if we knock out the wall and get outside, won’t they just go outside and chase us down? We need to think about stopping them first. And preferably soon.”
He stopped and twisted in his seat to look at her, unsure whether to be frightened or impressed. “What did you have in mind?”
Melissa’s eyes narrowed and she gave the door a hard glare. “How about that same northbound train and whatever’s on the opposite of our door?”
Satisfied at last with the condition of his engine and its cargo, the conductor put on a good front for his young protégé. He tried to blow off the whole incident. “This is the sorta stuff that happens when ya drive the rails, kid. All sortsa mysteries out here in the night. Why, I remem—”
The train lurched again.
“What the hell?!”
Doug had aimed the controller at the door and then modified the target to be one foot beyond that. The invisible congruency plane thus flashed into being and collided the exothermic rig, a wide circle of acoustic ceiling tile, wall plaster, and non-slip flooring, and the bodies of Augustus and Julius with the full force of the CSX train’s lead engine. Struck literally by a freight train, everything outside the door was cast northward, sending men and debris hurtling into the lab. The oxygen tank ruptured and exploded, throwing fire and shrapnel throughout the enclosed space.
Lafleur stood just outside the lab’s doors, unsure whether he should stay or go. The blast erupted from the lab and blew him along the passageway like an autumn leaf in a cyclone. A brief gout of flames curled along the halls to either side of the doorway.
Dazed and bloody, Lafleur picked himself up again, shook off the ringing in his ears, and stumbled back to the lab. What he saw inside was a mess no one could have survived. With only a glance at the test chamber door and the circle of damage from which the blast had originated, he knew exactly what had happened.
He ran to find Octavius.
The test chamber door was now warped in its track by the blast, never to open again. Some modest tongues of flame had jetted through the cuts already made, but the test chamber was none the worse for wear. Melissa stared at the damage her suggestion had wrought, looking grim. “Do you think any of them survived that?”
Doug came to her and took her in an embrace, their first. She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her warmth and the rapid beat of her heart. “I don’t know,” he told her, “but you didn’t bring this on them. This was their fault and they left us no real choice. Okay?”
She nodded and lifted up her head. Her eyes were red but dry. “Okay.”
He tried to give off a reassuring air. “Just in case they weren’t . . . incapacitated by that, we should stick to the original plan and go out the back, taking the gadget with us.” Doug used the controller and re-designated the already damaged back wall, then went to find a southbound train.
Melissa ducked down behind the isolation table. “I hope you aren’t parked in that south lot.”
Octavius stood in the south parking lot and glared at the circular indentation in the building’s wall, starkly illuminated by bright moonlight. He held his pistol tightly, ready to kill as soon as they finished collapsing the wall and showed their faces. He almost wished Julius and Augustus would fail, so the pleasure of putting down these two meddlesome idiots would be his and his alone.
A different idiot ran out of the building. Lafleur looked odd, however, covered in dust and bleeding from the nostrils. Octavius’ heart raced in alarm. “What now?”
Lafleur held up a hand to pause him, took a deep breath, and said, “Your men are both dead and the other entrance is wrecked. Forget the prototype and let’s get out of here.”
“Forget? Explain yourself!”
“I mean that your boys just went from Caesars to Caesar salad with the help of that gadget! Collins is on the offensive and you’re just standing here in front of the blast zone. Let’s go!”
“The wall’s collapsing to the interior. This is the best position to go in and grab them.”
“Momentum sources go both ways, you idiot!”
Octavius did not wait for Lafleur to finish insulting him. He jumped to the side, past the other man, just as the test chamber wall exploded outward. Cinder blocks, sheet metal, insulation, dust and debris blasted out to engulf the southern lot.
The test chamber wall exploded outward at seventy-two miles per hour, the exact speed of the Union Pacific freight train out of Billings, Montana. A cloud of dust, cold air, and bright moonlight rushed in through the wide opening to the outside. Ignoring the dust, Doug and Melissa went over to the prototype and began disconnecting it. She looked down at all the monitoring and network cables in her hand. “Hey, this isn’t going to blow up in my face, is it?”
Doug raised his hands uncertainly. “Probably not? It’s got a battery back-up.” He pulled the device up by the straps, straining to get them over his shoulders. “A very heavy battery back-up.”
They proceeded with care out of the lab. Melissa carried the controller and picked a route through the rubble, while Doug heaved the gadget itself. When they exited, Melissa saw Lafleur, lying amongst the chunks of cinder blocks, logy, bleeding, and mostly unconscious. She pointed him out to Doug, but he just kept walking. Doug would have kicked the traitor, but he could not spare the footing with his heavy load. They continued out into the lot.
They both halted and shuffled around to face their adversary. Octavius stood at the edge of the debris field, a bleeding gash on his forehead and blood running down his right arm. He did not appear to be armed, but he still looked enraged and dangerous. Doug lowered the gadget carefully to the debris-strewn ground and tried a defiant smile. “Ocho! Glad to see you made it out okay. Now if you’ll just turn around and run off the other way, we won’t have to do to you what we did to your crew.”
Octavius shuffled forward, but his steps became surer as he continued on. “My name is Octavius, and I will have what I came for. I’ll take it and then I’ll end you both.”
Doug stood in front of Melissa. “Going to be kinda hard to end both of us without your goons, right?”
Octavius sneered and stalked toward them, his hands clenched. “I don’t need any help to kill the likes of you.”
Doug swallowed hard. Yesterday, he had been a man who never upset the status quo, who took months to ask a woman out, and only after creating an elaborate plan to impress her. Yesterday, he had been a lesser man, but this situation had changed him. Today, he had defended his date, his work, and his ideals, no matter the odds. Today he had the courage to face one such as Octavius, no matter the likely outcome. Doug squared off, spread his stance, and raised his fists to face the other, more imposing man.
But while he had gained courage, Melissa seemed to have gleaned knowledge about his work. She peeked out from behind Doug, aimed the controller in her hand, and pressed a button. A laser dot briefly lit up Octavius’ chest.
The thief stopped and looked down, then gave them a short, dismissive laugh. “I am continually surrounded by fools. I seem to understand that device better than you do. See, you have to designate a target AND a momentum source. The device is just a stand-alone box now. You have no momentum net. You have no momentum source. Pathetic.” He started forward again.
Thinking furiously, Doug dropped his fists and reached over. He grabbed the controller, aimed it into the sky, and pressed a button.
Octavius laughed again and looked up. “What do you expec—”
Approximately 2.6 seconds after designating his momentum source, a peal of thunder cracked and Octavius flashed into a red mist headed easterly at almost 1400 miles per hour.
Doug stood up straight, looking at the spot where Octavius had stood. Melissa stood close to him, and they sought each other’s hand to hold without thinking about it. Melissa looked up at the sky and the source of silvery light hanging there. “Did you just hit him with the moon?”
“Oh.” She squeezed his hand. “Thanks for a lovely evening.”
Doug smiled and turned to face her. He gathered her into his arms. “Should I show you the other mad science experiments we’ve been working on?”
“Just shut up, Professor.”
They kissed under the light of the full moon.