Collective Minds

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Chapter 14

The mess hall was abuzz with activity at dinner that night, filled to capacity with the extra soldiers now residing at the base. Some of the troops were beat up, touting black eyes, bruises, and abrasions. One table of soldiers chattered relentlessly at Jack, who listened attentively.

At another table, Kat sat with the researchers, all of whom were eerily silent. Knowing they were dejected from a lack of progress, she tried to break the ice with Davinci. “So,” Kat asked, “Xiang told me you had some new exploratory ideas for the hull of the ship that sounded promising.”

DaVinci’s optimism wasn’t nearly as bubbly. “My ideas are guesses at this point,” he replied. “It’s become painfully clear to me why your scientists failed as long as they did.” Madame Curie chimed in, having forged a friendship with the fabled alchemist that Kat was certain had become physical.

“They failed,” concluded the timid chemist, “Because they were men, and egos clouded their intellect.” DaVinci shot her an irate look and opened his mouth to retort, only to be interrupted by Ben Franklin, who stopped the argument before it began. “Let’s not start that again,” interjected the portly Philadelphian. “There’s no shame in saying this technology is beyond our understanding.”

Einstein concurred. “I agree,” he added. “Perhaps we should consider abandoning this futile quest. Surely we could conceive a new plan.” Dr. Hawking wasn’t eating, as he listened to the rhetoric of his friends. Seeing them disagree and quarrel was counterproductive, even though he himself had reached his rope’s end. The chair-bound genius did his best to try to keep morale alive.

“This technology is our best option, I’m sure of it,” spoke professor Hawking. “We have all the keys, we just can’t get them into the lock.”

Franklin cut a piece of chicken on his plate with a plastic utensil while he answered his monotone cohort, offering a somber reply. “Mankind may never unlock that door, my friend,” he answered, as he sawed aggressively at his poultry. Ben’s reply was focused enough that he muscled his cutlery a bit too hard, causing it to snap. Frustrated himself by the whole conversation, the chubby inventor looked through his spectacles at the useless handle he was now holding, showing a rare bit of emotion. “Damn the weak metal in this knife,” he cursed. “Now I’ll have to fetch another.”

Kat laughed. “It’s not metal at all, Ben. It’s plastic.” Curie, witnessing the entire chain of events, laughed alongside her momentarily, then got a perplexed look on her face. Then she froze altogether for a moment, deep in thought. Kat recognized that the lights had gone on, as madame Curie turned and questioned her.

“What did you say?,” asked the chemist.

“I said it’s not a metal at all,” Kat answered.

“That’s it,” Curie replied, still spinning in thought.

DaVinci too could see that his cohort was on to something. “What, Marie. What’s ‘it’?,” he begged.

“The material, on the hull of the ship,” answered Madame Curie. “It’s not a metal at all.” The table got quiet, as all ears tuned in. Breakthroughs had been nil to this point, and everyone could see that she was on the verge of cracking that streak.

“What is it then?,” asked Kat.

“Something else,” replied the chemist. “The reason we can’t penetrate it is because we’ve been unable to identify it. I’d wager that if we could, we’d realize that it’s not a metal, but a non-metal alloy of some kind.”

“Go on,” Kat ushered enthusiastically.

“We’ve determined that it displaces energy and stores it geometrically,” explained Curie. “So it’s obviously a conductor. If it is a metal in the form that it’s in, it must transmute into something else when energy is introduced as a catalyst. If we could isolate it from any outside sources of energy, we might be able to stop that transmutation and obtain a sample for identification purposes. Once we do that, we should be able to replicate it.”

“We have isolated it,” interjected DaVinci.

“Have we?,” asked Curie. “What about everyday forces we take for granted, like gravity, or photonic radiation from the lights? What about the thermal energy in the hangar from the heaters and air conditioning?” Everyone stared in amazement. Kat was blown away, only able to mutter a short affirmation. “My god,” she boasted. “She’s right.”

The next morning rolled around in the blink of an eye. Kat, Xiang, Hawking, and Einstein all stood conferring in the hangar with the ship in the background. DaVinci, madame Curie, and Ben Franklin all stood near the hull, discussing some last minute plans.

The hangar had been massively modified in an all night effort by everyone, and looked completely different. The inside walls had been lined with a thick insulating foil which resembled aluminum. The ship had been taken off the chains and blocks, and now rested on a catwalk suspended about four feet above the floor. Under the catwalk was a round, transparent blue reflective panel. Visible inside it was complex circuitry that ran in all directions.

All seven people huddled together as the final preparations began. “We’ve insulated the room,” Kat said, “Against EM radiation of any kind from the earth, the sun, radio waves, and microwaves. The only ambient energy left in here is thermal energy, which we’ve dropped as low as we can get it without turning this place into a meat locker. Absolute zero will take weeks to reach, so we’ll have to cross our fingers that this is good enough.”

Ben Franklin gestured to the blue disk below the platform. “What’s the blue device for?,” he questioned. “Years ago,” Kat replied, “The government developed an anti-gravity field. They couldn’t sustain it for very long, and couldn’t make it small enough to wield as a weapon, so they stashed it here with the rest of the classified surplus. We think we can sustain it long enough with the alien power supply to neutralize the pull of gravity on the ship for a few minutes.”

The three time travelers looked impressed, as Dr. Hawking offered some more insight. “We’ll also be turning off all the lights. Short of the light from our instrumentation, it’s going to be pitch black in here.” Xiang opened a gear box nearby, and produced seven pair of night vision goggles, which he distributed to each team member. “You’ll need these,” said Lo. “Once the lights go down, we’ll have to act quickly.”

“Based on madame Curie’s hypothesis,” continued Hawking, “We think the hull may decay enough to extract a sample once the energy around it is removed. If we do that, we’ll be able to analyze it.”

“Remember,” insisted Xiang, “This substance is susceptible to energy of any kind. Even the sound waves from your vocal cords. The more we isolate, the easier our job will be.”

Everyone understood, and outfitted themselves with goggles, as Kat helped Dr. Hawking with his. The lights went down in the hangar, prompting Einstein to connect the alien power supply to the anti-gravity pad. As he did so, the field immediately hummed to life, causing the ship to levitate a meter or so off its rest.

The researchers immediately and quietly approached the hovering craft. Ben Franklin was the first to touch it, causing it to rock slightly in the weightless field. Xiang Lo scanned the ship with a small device, and smiled widely. Dying to speak what the others already knew, he simply gave an exuberant ‘thumbs up’.

Madame Curie pointed to the opening at the top of the craft, producing a pair of tin snips from the pocket of her lab coat, which she handed to DaVinci. The bearded alchemist positioned a small ladder next to the fluttering ship, and ascended it, carefully balancing on the top rung. Leaning over, he meticulously cut a silver dollar sized piece of material out, then descended.

All the researchers quickly gathered around him and studied what was in his hand. Sixty years of failure had just turned to sixty seconds of victory more exciting than any frustration that had come before. Kat turned the lights back on in the hangar, as everyone, less Dr. Hawking, quickly snapped off their goggles. The hull of the ship and DaVinci’s fragment all appeared dull and discolored momentarily, then immediately reverted to their shiny brilliance as light filled the room. Einstein helped his handicapped friend remove his head gear, causing the chair-bound scientist to smile ear to ear at the sight of their success.

Jack was enjoying a hot shower. The little things had become luxuries in his day to day hustle and bustle, and he never missed a chance to unwind a little from being the head honcho. His relaxation was cut short by the door to his quarters flying open, followed by the shower curtain tearing back a moment later.

Soapy, naked, and startled, Jack found himself face to face with his exuberant girlfriend, who was breathing like she’d just run a marathon. “Holy Christ, Kat!,” he shrieked.

“We did it, Jack!,” Kat stammered breathlessly. “We ID’d the composition of the hull on the ship!” Jack shut off the water and grabbed a towel, simultaneously asking how.

“We isolated the craft from all the outside forces that made it so strong. It’s not an alien metal at all. In fact, it’s not even a metal. It’s a complex non-metal alloy of some sort, composed of elements found here on earth.”

“Why couldn’t we identify it then?,” Jack asked.

Kat tried to explain it in layman terms. “You know how radioactive elements decay over time? They become something different usually, like lead, as they lose energy. This material actually does the same thing, but it reverse. It absorbs energy as it decays instead of losing it, and becomes stronger. It changes color, and density, and has a massive capacity to store energy indefinitely.”

Jack couldn’t believe his ears. Some success had finally found its way home, and for the first time in months he saw some hope in Kat’s eyes. “Fantastic,” he replied as he dried himself off. “How soon can we start duplicating it?”

Kat’s expression changed a little. “We can’t,” she answered. “Even though we managed to ID the base elements and the atomic structure with the electron microscope, it was chemically bonded in some way we’d never seen before. But at the very least we have a starting point.”

She was desperate for Jack to show some enthusiasm, which didn’t materialize. Instead, he continued to grill her as he pulled on his pants. “That’s great, Kat,” he said. “Really good news. But we’re only a little over eight months from the attack, and the clock is ticking. Stay after it with your team, and keep the momentum going. Figure out how to duplicate it.”

Kat was more than a little disappointed in his reply, but knew he was a soldier before anything else. She wasn’t going to let it get to her though, as her crew had just put a huge piece of the puzzle into place. The invasion time line was on everyone’s mind, and no one needed to hear about it to realize.

“You don’t have to tell me about the bad guys, Jack,” she reminded him. “I was there the first time, remem...”

Kat’s sentence was cut short, as she stopped mid way through and stuttered. She lost her balance and started to fall, like she was fainting, as Jack caught her and sat her on the toilet seat. Her head began to phase in and out of translucency, then solidified again, allowing her to regain her composure.

Jack realized his girlfriend had just experienced the same thing he had months before. “Not you too,” he pleaded, as he made sure she was alright. “Was that the first time?” Still catching her breath, and confused, Kat managed to nod ‘yes’. Jack looked around to make sure no one had seen what happened, as the door to his quarters was still cracked slightly. He booted it shut, then moved back and put his arm around her.

Later in the hangar, madame Curie peered through a microscope, which was mounted to the outside of a black steel box about the size of a milk crate. She leaned over and took some notes, as Kat approached to check on her progress. “Find anything new?,” the team leader inquired.

“Yes,” replied the timid Curie, “But not in the alloy. It’s exactly what we concluded earlier. A primarily carbon, copper, and yttrium compound. It’s bonded in such a manner that it acts as a capacitor, which makes it a miraculous conductor. I was right when I said it wasn’t a metal. Even though some of the base components are metals, the conduction and storage capacity classify it as more non-metallic.”

“I know,” replied Kat. “That’s what makes it so valuable, and why we need to figure out how to replicate it. But enough on that for the moment. You said you found something else?”

Curie sat straight up in her chair. “Yes,” she replied, “But it’s...how did you put it...a ‘long shot’?” Kat chuckled at the use of slang, as the chemist continued. “DaVinci is a brilliant man. Arrogant, and brash, and piggish. But he’s from a different time and I understand that,” she admitted. “However, when I was younger, I remember reading about some of his studies. They weren’t always based in scientific foundation. He was also an alchemist.”

Kat began to get curious. “Go on,” she beckoned.

“Alchemy faded away over time,” madame Curie said, “But some of the experiments he did were amazing, and yielded very positive results. One in particular that may help us.”

“Which one?,” asked Kat.

“DaVinci claimed,” stated Curie, “That he was able to turn lead into gold using only solar energy as a catalyst. He supposedly fabricated a prism that split the high energy photons from the sun, altering the atomic structure of the element on a molecular level. It was never proven, and the secret supposedly died with him. But if such a prism existed, we could use it to produce the results we seek in fabricating the alloy from the ship.”

Kat saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. “Have you asked him about this, Marie?”

“No,” answered the famed chemist. “I only thought of it a short while ago. He and I don’t agree on a great deal. It’s difficult being the only woman on the research team. In fact, I was the only woman you chose to bring forward. That’s been somewhat intimidating.”

“True,” retorted Kat, “But you were the first to make progress. It was your idea to isolate the ship. Now you have another idea that may very well work out. Don’t be fooled by the male ego. Most of the time they can’t think past their crotch.”

Madame Curie, for the first time in her stay, laughed hysterically out loud. Kat was thrilled to see her come out of her shell, and joined in the jubilation. The two enjoyed the moment, and decompressed some from the long, tiring day.

Later, in the conference room, Jack, Kat, General Irons, and madame Curie all sat silently in wait. The door opened, and DaVinci came in, taking a seat next to Jack and the General. “You called for me, Colonel Briggs?,” he inquired.

“I did, Leonardo. Madame Curie thinks she has a way to replicate the alloy from the alien ship,” Jack answered. DaVinci sat poised for the explanation, as Colonel Briggs deferred to Curie. The chemist sat up in her chair, and leaned over the table.

“There are historical records,” she began, “Of you experimenting in turning common metals into precious ones like gold and silver. Details were very scattered, but it was widely believed that you used sunlight in the molecular manipulation of the atom. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

DaVinci got a stone look on his face, as he knew it was his chemist counterpart that had come up with the idea. “I do,” he answered, “But I stopped pursuing that experiment.”

“Why?,” asked Kat. “You could’ve been rich beyond your wildest dreams.” DaVinci stirred in his seat some, clearly uncomfortable talking about what went wrong. “It’s not that simple, Mrs. Westmorland. The physics of the prism and the angle of the sun were one thing, but the social implications were something else.” The word ‘prism’ caused Curie to tune in more attentively.

General Irons looked confounded. “What the hell does that mean?,” he asked impatiently. DaVinci stirred again, and exhaled loudly before answering. “When word of my experiment got out, people came from everywhere and asked me to make lead into gold. I turned them away, knowing that handing untold riches to complete strangers was a terrible idea. I made just enough to fund my research, feed my family, and live modestly. I had no desire for fortune.”

The whole group was hinging on every word now, as the story turned the corner. “One day,” DaVinci said, “A band of thieves came to my home. They demanded I reveal the secrets of how I did it, and threatened to kill me and my family if I didn’t cooperate. So I did the only thing I could think of. I set up an experiment to show them how it worked, and sabotaged the prism so it was destroyed in the transmuting process. I had a small stockpile of gold that I was able to bribe them with to spare our lives. The crystal was destroyed, and I never dared walk that path again after seeing the evil it brought.”

“But it worked,” Kat implied. “You were able to make lead into gold.” DaVinci was getting irate, and hammered his fist on the table as he answered. “Yes, but weren’t you listening, woman? It nearly cost me my life!”

Madame Curie, upon hearing the word ‘woman’, snapped. “You dare to question her because of her gender?,” she scolded. “A genius you may be, but your ignorance through your arrogance is deafening. You are a pompous, stupid, pig of a man! This isn’t about riches, or fortune, it’s about the survival of the human race!”

The room got quiet, as the stunned occupants watched the volcanic chemist blow her top. “If I ever,” Curie continued, “Hear you speak ill of a woman again, ANY woman, I will personally enlist the barbarian called Khan to beat you senseless. Do you understand me?”

DaVinci was shocked. Never in his life had a woman spoken to him this way, let alone one so petite and fragile. Nor did he have any desire to feel the brunt of Khan’s aggression. “Please,” he begged to Curie dejectedly, “Forgive me. Women were held in a far different regard in my time, and I’m a stranger in a strange land.”

Jack needed answers. “Can you reproduce that prism, Leonardo?,” he asked. “We think it might be able to manipulate the raw alloy into the same material the ship is composed of.”

“Yes,” answered DaVinci, “I can. But I make no promises it will work. This alloy is far more complicated than lead.”

“Good,” replied Jack. “Put together a list of things you need, and give it to Kat. Once we secure those items, how long before you can be ready for a trial run?” DaVinci stroked his beard and pondered momentarily. “A week, maybe two,” he answered. “The technology for shaping and cutting the crystal is much more precise now.”

“Very good,” said General Irons optimistically. “Get the lab jockeys lined out on what we’re doing, and have them make room down there for what’s coming. I want everything in place as soon as DaVinci has the prism fabricated.”

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