by E. S. Strout
The way to have power is to take it.
William Marcy (Boss) Tweed (1823-1878)
Zeta-2 Reticuli is a star in the Reticulum constellation. It forms a
binary system with the Zeta-1 star. It has planets, one of which is
occupied by an intelligent race of beings that have developed
faster-than-light technology for spacecraft based on interaction
between radioactive elements uranium and plutonium. Their process is
limited in scope to fuel for nuclear energy plants, spacecraft and
public utilities. They have been unsuccessful in attempts to produce a
small-scale nuclear engine to power military land vehicles, civilian
automobiles and aircraft.
Recently the Z2R space probe Alpha Epsilon discovered
our Solar System and planet Earth. In their quest, they located a
scientist who had developed a cold fusion process to power a small
ground vehicle. Their government, after much discussion, approved a
plan to acquire the technology.
"You mean steal it," the leading minority faction member accused.
The senior council member was quoted later as saying to the
dissenting members, "These aliens do not have faster than light
interplanetary capability. Even if they detect us, Alpha Epsilon
will disappear before they can twitch."
Monday, 3 December 2018: Encoded transmission from Z2R Alpha
We remain invisible, stationary within third planet's atmosphere.
Tritium signature confirmed. Location is alien scientist's research
laboratory. His computer is impenetrable to us.
Z2R Space Command to Probe Alfa Epsilon:
Use of cerebral cortical probe is authorized.
Space Corps/NASA Complex, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Tuesday, 4
December 2018. 1033 hours:
four year-old green Toyota Prius suddenly careened, spun and impacted a
light pole at 25 mph. Its driver side window was a spiderweb of cracks
and the door crumpled. Airbags were deployed. Paramedics and base
security personnel arrived within minutes.
Base Infirmary, 1230 hours:
"You were lucky, Professor
Maas," thirty three year-old slim, dark haired and hazel-eyed Susan
Grant, M.D. said. She completed suturing the last of several facial
lacerations, gave him a reassuring smile. "EMT's said you were
"I was dazed."
"Any recollections, Dr. Maas?" 48 year-old Security Chief Aaron
Blake, a retired Marine Corps veteran, asked in a concerned
"I sensed numbers, Aaron."
"Yes. In groups of four."
"He has a mild concussion," Dr. Grant said. "Such hallucinatory
events are common, but transient."
Thirty-four year old subatomic particle physicist Adrian Maas
interlaced tremulous fingers in his lap. "I do not hallucinate, Susan.
What can you tell me about your fancy test results?"
She scanned results on her desktop computer screen, "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. Mr. Blake insists I give him a statement."
Dr. Grant nodded. She swabbed the suture lines with antiseptic, then
held up a hand mirror. "What do you think?"
He gave her a faint smile. "Looks like I've been attacked by Betsy
Ross on LSD."
Nod and a smile. "I really hate working on you Mensa types. These
should heal without scarring. Please come by my office at about nine on
Thursday morning so I can check my embroidery."
Security Office, 1425 hours:
"Dr. Maas, We've gone over
your car," Security Chief Blake said. "Brakes and steering are okay.
Something must have distracted you."
"A major headache, Aaron. I lost control of the steering wheel for a
couple of seconds." He massaged his temples. "Our computer hacker has
been a major distraction."
"I know. Multiple attempts on your classified research files."
Maas nodded. "I've been lucky and blocked them all so far. What have
Blake gave Maas an odd grin and handed over a printout. "We picked
up this transmission. Groups of four numbers, like you said. Source
still undetermined. Whoever this guy is, he's a pro."
Dr. Maas studied the page for several seconds, handed it back. "It's
a numeric code, Aaron. I'm sure of it."
"NSA and CIA cryptographers are working on it."
"Have them run foreign languages as well."
Wednesday, 5 December. 0927 hours:
"You gotta be kidding,"
Maas said as he massaged his temples with stiff fingertips. He chewed
four Tylenol tablets and swallowed them with a gulp of tepid coffee.
"Bitch of a headache."
Security Chief Blake said, "No luck on the code so far, compadre.
They've run it in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Farsi and Arabic. Even
obscure dialects of them. Been working on it all night. But we know
where it comes from." He aimed an index finger at the ceiling. "Out
Maas shook his head. "Not too precise, Aaron. Aircraft? Satellite?"
"Neither. We've checked. The Air Force concentrated on the local
area. No hits on their most sophisticated radar. Two F-22 Raptor
fighter jets were scrambled. No hits, no target."
Maas shook his head in bewilderment. "Come on, Aaron. A UFO?"
"You got a better idea, Doc?"
Thursday, 6 December. 1115 hours. Dr. Grant's office:
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. What kept you?"
Maas hung his head, blushed. "Overslept, Sue."
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?"
"Something odd happened, Susan. Jack Daniels Tennessee sippin'
whiskey on the rocks cured my headache. Shouldn't ethanol make it
"I would think so," she said as she paged through his clinical
record. "You had a headache before your accident according to Mr.
"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 like a major anxiety attack."
Maas nodded. "Very sensitive files. Security Level Q-7."
Grant gave him a pert grin. "Same as mine, Dr. Maas. I'm no hotshot
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'll swap days with Dr. Mitsuhashi. She owes me one."
"Tomorrow morning around ten. Room 101, Building E as in Echo. Don't
overdress. The lab is a bit scruffy."
Friday, December 7. 0955 hours:
Susan pressed the fingerprint pad and blinked at the retinal scan.
Chief Blake 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 warped wooden door of Room 101 read: THERE IS
NO GRAVITY. THE EARTH SUCKS.
Dr. Grant smiled. "He does have an odd sense of humor."
Blake nodded, smiled. "Always has."
Dr. Maas's office held a Government Issue gray metal desk, two
chairs and a desktop 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," Susan called.
"Hi Sue. Grab some coffee. I'm in the lab."
The five-foot ten inch sandy-haired rail-thin researcher smiled.
"You dressed for the occasion. Good."
She wore a windbreaker jacket over a blue NASA sweatshirt and
Levi's. Running shoes and heavy white athletic socks. She took a jolt
"That's better. Gets a bit chilly here in December." She held up the
newspaper. "You do cryptograms and the toughest Sudoku in ink. I'm
"Weird, huh? They just pop into my head."
She drank more coffee. "You were a cryptographer according to your
"A year at Langley. I was good, got bored. There are bigger
challenges here. For one, this hacker is giving Aaron and I 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 had little effect. Any ideas, Doctor?"
"That does sound odd. I'll do some reading, see what I can find and
let you know."Dr. Grant looked the laboratory over with a calculating
eyeball. "Looks like my Dad's auto parts store and garage where he
works on sports cars. I see some Chevy V-8 and Ford 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. How odd. I
don't smell any gasoline."
"Come with me."
Adrian punched digits on a keypad on the green tile wall. A steel
pocket door retracted to reveal a well-lit descending stairway that led
to a spacious garage. A glistening black sports car crouched
panther-like on the concrete deck.
Dr. Grant blinked in surprise. "1968 Chevy Corvette. Nice
"A hobby, Sue. Took me two years."
An expectant gleam in her eyes. "May I . . . ?"
"It's a five-speed transmission."
"Automatic is for wimps."
"Good answer." Adrian pressed a wall switch and the outer garage
door folded up. He opened the Corvette's driver side door for her and
snapped her seat belt harness in place. "Press the red START button,
left side of the instrument panel."
She did, then again. "Nothing happened, Adrian."
"Takes a few seconds to warm up. Watch for a green light over the
"There's green." She donned a Florida Marlins baseball cap
and aviator sunglasses from her spacious purse. "Let's do it."
"Wait." Adrian eyed a small dashboard screen. It read 0.00. "Good."
Sue tapped impatient fingers on the steering wheel. "What's good?"
He smiled. "You'll see. Watch for cross traffic, turn right."
Susan eased the Corvette into first gear. There was a faint
mechanical murmur as the transmission engaged. "I can't hear the
"Easy now," he cautioned. "Base speed limit is 25 mph. Go one mile,
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 rechecked her seat belt harness. "You're leading the last lap of
the Daytona 500 with Jeff Gordon trying to take down force 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 yelled as she pounded the steering wheel with
a gloved fist.
"Perimeter fence coming up in a mile, Sue," Adrian said. "Ease off
on your revs and stop there."
The Corvette eased to a halt with a contented purr. "Do I get a look
at your power plant?" Susan asked as she stepped out.
Dr. Maas nodded. He popped the hood latch to reveal a miniature dull
gray spherical containment structure with complex circulation duct
components. "It powers a steam turbine connected to the drive shaft and
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
"Complex process, Susan. This is the prototype. It depends on
muon-catalyzed fusion of tritium atoms to produce nuclear energy at
Grant gave him a wry grin with a hand on his arm. "Of course. Why
didn't you just say so?" Then a pause and a questioning grin. "You lost
me at muon."
Maas nodded. "Muons are subatomic particles that can, under certain
conditions, reduce the distance between tritium atoms and allow them to
fuse at room temperature. It's cold fusion, Susan. I've been involved
with Japanese scientists at their Riken RAL Muon Facility. This
Corvette is the result of our cooperation."
She nodded. "Adrian, those hackers must be after your cold fusion
1235 hours. Probe Z2R Alpha Epsilon to Space Command:
Mind probe of security alien not useful. Female medical type
equivocal. Will intensify attempts on scientist.
Z2R Space Command response:
Success is imperative.
When they returned to Adrian's lab the message waiting light was
blinking. Dr. Maas listened, blinking with concern. "Thank God."
"Adrian? What is it?"
"It was Security Chief Blake. He was admitted to the infirmary with
severe headaches. They did tests, all normal. The headaches quit and he
signed himself out."
"I'd better look at his test results . . . " Susan winced, rubbed
her forehead. "Ow. Now I have one." She took three Tylenols, chewed,
gagged and swallowed without water.
Maas stumbled to his desk chair. "Mine is back too. How weird. I
sense numbers again." He reached in a desk drawer, removed a pint
bottle of Jack Daniels and uncapped it. "Now don't get antsy, Susan.
This is an experiment. It worked yesterday." He took a swallow as Grant
favored him with a skeptical eye. "Hmm. Headache's easing up now.
Numbers still there, very clear."
"Write them down," Dr. Grant gasped as she massaged her temples.
He scrawled 7146 3214 8804 9601 in pencil on a memo pad.
"How did you do that?" Dr. Grant asked as the computer screen
confirmed the figures from the intercepted transmission.
"They mean something," Adrian said. "I'm certain."
Dr. Grant exhaled a sigh of relief. "My headache just quit. Gone in
an instant, like a switch was turned off somewhere."
Maas took another swallow. "You're lucky. Got any more esoteric
tests that could help me figure this out?"
Susan picked up the phone and began to punch digits. "I'll try. Give
me a half hour to do some reading, then go to the Neurology lab. It's
room 304 in the Imaging Complex. When they finish, come back to my
Dr. Grant's office. 1500 hours.
Susan was studying a computer image when Dr. Maas arrived. "How did
it go, Adrian?"
He plopped down in a chair. "They were waiting for me. What's a PET
"Positron Emission Tomography. It lights up areas of increased brain
activity." She turned the screen. "Here's yours."
"Wow. Looks like a fireworks display."
"That's your frontal lobe cortex. It's involved with intuitive and
cognitive functions. Definitely hyperactive." She clicked another key.
"Your MRI right after the accident. Suggestive but not conclusive." Dr.
Grant pulled up another image. "This is Mr. Blake's PET scan, taken
when he was admitted with his headache attack." She clicked another
key. "And this one is mine, taken earlier. No fireworks in either."
Dr. Maas massaged his neck with both hands. "So my frontal lobes are
working overtime. Explanation, Susan?"
She pushed a current neurology research journal across the desk.
"Take a look."
Adrian scanned the highlighted text and shrugged. "That's a
mouthful, Susan. Way over my head."
"The authors believe that ethanol may increase the sensitivity of
molecular receptors in the sensory neural synapses of a few
He gave her a questioning look. "You mean like me? I'm one of the
Dr. Grant nodded. "You could be hypersensitive to external stimuli.
Like those weird transmissions. There's something else, too, that goes
along with it."
She pressed a computer key and another image came on the screen.
"This is the MRI of your brain taken right after the accident, I missed
this before, because I was just looking for trauma." She tapped on the
screen with a pencil point. These two little areas on the temporal
lobes are foci of hypertrophic cerebral cortex."
"You lost me again, Sue. Please explain."
Grant grabbed a textbook of central nervous system anatomy from a
shelf behind her and flipped pages as Adrian looked over her shoulder.
She put a finger on an area of temporal lobe cortex. "This folded area
of cerebral cortex is called Heschl's Gyrus. That's where the
hypertrophic changes are in your brain."
Professor Maas scratched his head. "So you're telling me it's not
Susan opened another book, laid it open and removed the bookmark.
She turned it so Adrian could see. "Read the paragraph highlighted in
He nodded. "Individuals with this rare anomaly are proficient at
word and number puzzles. They may be quite adept at learning foreign
languages and solving complex problems. No association with heredity
has been discovered as yet."
He read for a minute, then nodded. "It fits. My first job at Langley
was cryptography. I found it simple and boring. I used to submit
cryptograms and Sudoku puzzles to the Washington Post."
Susan's cell phone broke into a snippet of J.S. Bach's Goldberg
Variations. "Dr. Grant here. Of course, Mr. Blake. Bring it right over."
"I don't know, but he's pretty excited."
Blake handed Dr. Grant a disc with Confidential printed on its
label. "Some folks in U.C. Berkeley's Astronomy Department picked this
up. NASA believes it's our hacker. Your Q-7 password opens it."
She slid it into the drive slot, tapped keystrokes as Aaron Blake
and Adrian watched. A logo followed by Allen Radiotelescope
Array appeared at the top of the page. Another series of numbers
followed. "What are these?" she asked.
Blake shrugged. "Beats me."
Dr. Maas said, "I know. Keep going, Susan."
She pressed another series of keys. A star chart appeared with a red
circle emphasizing a small cluster in the center. A bemused smile.
"Yes. Celestial coordinates. Let's enlarge it and get a printout."
They spread the hardcopy out on one of Susan's examining tables.
Adrian read the text aloud. "Zeta Reticuli. A constellation with
multiple star systems. 39.3 light years from Earth. Two-way streams of
numeric code from there to us."
Blake smiled. "A UFO, Doctors."
Adrian nodded. "So it seems. Just a foreign language, only not of
Earth. Who are they? Why are they here?"
Susan grabbed his arm. "Think, Adrian. Get your anomalous cerebral
cortex working. You know how to get past the headache."
"Right." He took a swallow of Jack Daniels. "Don't worry, Aaron.
This is legitimate ethanol therapy approved by Dr. Grant."
"Adrian," Sue gasped. "Go easy. Too much could impair other
"Hush up, Susan. My Heschl's Gyrus is speaking to me," he said.
Maas took two more large swallows. "Good therapy, this Jack
Daniels." He pressed fingertips against his temples, squeezed his
eyelids shut. "Good God," he muttered. "These numbers. I thought so."
Susan and Blake stared as Dr. Maas hammered keys. "I can decode
their messages. Their syntax is a bit weird, but I can approximate.
Here it comes."
Probe ZR-2 Alpha Epsilon transmission:
Brain probe failure. Neural function altered by unusual organic
chemical imbalance in target scientist. Pathways are conjoined. It is
decoding our transmissions. We do have power vehicle coordinates. We
must hurry. Please advise.
Z2R Space Command response:
Acquire and return at once.
Dr. Grant gave the screen a worried stare. "Acquire? What does that
"Oh, holy crap. I know." Maas stumbled to his feet. "Give me a hand
here Blake. The garage. Hurry!" he shouted in a drunken slur. "We've
only got minutes."
"Susan, Aaron, wait in my office. You'll be safe there."
It seemed an eternity for Adrian to fumble into the HAZMAT suit in
his inebriated state. Longer to make a small change under the
Corvette's hood. He slammed it shut, just missing a fingertip. "This
better be right," he whispered in a barely decipherable mutter.
Seconds later there was a blinding flash. "Whew. Just as I
expected," he said as he shed the HAZMAT gear in the office,
"Oh no," Sue wailed. "The Corvette?"
Maas nodded. "Gone They have teleportation capability, but they
can't transmit organic structures. They'd have grabbed me if they did."
"How can you know that?" a skeptical Security Chief Blake asked.
"Heschl's Gyrus, Jack Daniels and a totally drunk Professor Adrian
Maas, Aaron. Susan will explain," he slurred. "I can hear, sense, feel
all input from them and their craft's data banks now. Their ship is
fueled by plutonium," Dr. Maas said. "Their mind probe caused the
"What did you do in the garage?" Susan asked.
I took a chance," he said. "Muons are very reactive if their
half-life is prolonged. They can reduce the distance between other
radioactive elements' atoms. Like in the aliens' plutonium reactor."
"You removed the shielding." Blake said.
"Good God, Adrian," Susan shrieked. "They are more technically
advanced than us. Stealth and FTL technology, tachyon transmission
capability and teleportation. They're aiming some kind of weird weapon
at us right now."
Maas hiccuped, excused himself, giggled. "They don't have one,
Susie. They only want to steal my cold fusion discovery. We assume
alien races will be more advanced," he slurred. "These guys are inept
klutzes. They couldn't crack my files and their mind probe only gave us
"Hell of a first contact scenario," Adrian muttered. "All they had
to do was ask. We could have shared technology. Damn."
Security Chief Blake raised a skeptical eyebrow." What happens now,
"Help me to Susie's office before I fall on my face," he mumbled.
"Then surf the all-news channels on her TV. You'll see."
Susan poured another cup of strong black
coffee for Dr. Maas as he held an ice bag to his throbbing head.
"You're going to be hung over for a week, Adrian."
"And probably burst my bladder," he muttered.
"Here it is, Doctors," Blake said as he hit the volume.
BREAKING NEWS. Science Editor Randall Roberts reporting:
A sudden bright flash was seen at 5:02 P.M, EST by an orbiting long
range telescope at the outer rim of our solar system. Satellites with
radiation detection capability report a burst of gamma rays and
subatomic particles, consistent with a nuclear incursion. Hubble images
show a spacecraft of unknown type in that area, obviously disabled.
Updates to follow. Stay tuned to Fox News . . .
Blake's cell phone tweeted. He listened for a full minute, shook his
head and nodded. "I'll tell them," he said.
"What?" Susan asked.
"We're wanted," Blake said with a sour grimace. "Homeland Security,
FBI, CIA, NASA, Department of Defense and the Air Force are all lining
up debrief us."
"I'm getting another headache," Dr. Maas groaned.
"I can get some more Jack Daniels for you," Blake said with a wry
grin. He barely dodged Maas's flung icebag.
"Professor Maas needs a much more sensitive type of therapy, Mr.
Blake," Susan said. She took Adrian's hand and gave his sutured face a
delicate but tender kiss.
Susan entered a saved number on her cell phone as Adrian napped
beside her, snoring softly. She spoke for a couple of minutes. "Thanks,
Dad. I know Dr. Maas will be very pleased."
Blake gave her a questioning look.
Susan smiled. "My father knows somebody with a first generation 1955
Ford Thunderbird. An antique T-Bird. It's in need of some serious
restoration and... an updated power configuration."
© 2013 E. S. Strout
Bio: Stories by E. S. Strout (M.D.), a.k.a. Gene or Gino, have
appeared in Planet Magazine, Anotherealm, Millennium F&SF,
Beyond-sf, Jackhammer (Eggplant Productions), Static Movement,
and Bewildering Stories. And, of course, many of his stories
have appeared in Aphelion (most recently Cold
Storage, April 2013).
E-mail: E. S. Strout
(Humanoids: replace '_AT_' with '@')
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.