Fiction: “The Long Toss” by Gary Cuba

Hell of a way to lose, I thought, as I plowed my way through the detritus covering the parking lot.

I headed toward my office in Newton Hall, the center for Physics and Mathematics studies at Manley University. The trash was the day-old aftermath of the school’s final football game of the year. It consisted, in the main, of plastic beer cups, discarded game programs and empty half-pint bottles.

The students had been gifted with a good reason to get smashed. Once again, their team had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, ending their season with a record whose “wins” column consisted of an unblemished goose egg. What had made it all the more depressing was the way they had lost, on a last-second “Hail Mary” pass by the opposing offense. Heck, I thought. How had that scrawny Framingham Tech quarterback managed to throw the football so far, scrambling from deep in his own end zone? It must have traveled ninety yards in the air!

I plopped my heavy briefcase down on my desk and looked over at my office-mate, Harvey Atwood. Harvey was a full Professor, an aging don with dual doctorates in Physics and Chemistry. His unkempt, gray hair spilled across his shoulders, making his deep frown seem all that much more dour.

“Morning, Harvey. You look like you bet on the wrong team. How much did you manage to drop?”

Harvey snorted. “George, you know I try to stay clear of that sort of thing. Unless it’s a sure deal. No, there’s something else bugging me about that game–about that last play, that last pass.”

“Like, perhaps, the thought that it was impossible? That it violated the laws of physics and human physiology? Old friend, my lowly field of expertise may be in linguistic meta-geometry, but even I know that. It had to be a fix, a trick football. Filled with helium or something.”

“Not a credible hypothesis,” Harvey replied. “The volume-to-weight ratio is too small. You couldn’t pack enough helium in there to make a significant difference in the ball’s performance. But we saw it with our own eyes. It seemed impossible–but it’s obviously not. I’ve been tearing my hair out all night, trying to reason it out scientifically. And then, this morning I began to think about Dudley.”

“Dr. Luttle, over at Framingham? What possible connection could Dudley have had with yesterday’s game?”

“He was there, so I naturally suspect him. I’d suspect him for causing the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, too–except I know for a fact that he wasn’t in Ukraine at the time.”

I knew where this was heading: the same place any conversation about Dudley went. Harvey was a brilliant man, but I had come to learn over the years that he harbored a vindictive, malevolent impulse when it came to his arch-rival. He saved and stored Dudley’s professional slights as an English Squire might collect postage stamps: immaculately kept, but overly ruminated upon. He sputtered on.

“That rascal has built a career on stealing my hopes and dreams. I can’t seem to get a paper ready for peer review and publication anymore, before he somehow manages to preempt it. And when I do slip one in under his radar, he unfailingly castigates it in the journals. I grant you: he might not be responsible for everything bad that happens in the world–but this had his signature written all over it.” Harvey turned his head away and muttered an expletive. “And besides, he took me for five hundred on that game. Knowing Dudley, by noon every academic in North America will have heard about it. By tomorrow, every academic in the world.”

“Ah, the plot thickens. I thought you said you never bet unless it was a sure thing?”

“He stuck the wager right in my face, George! I couldn’t back down without losing face. The smug bastard! And remember, Framingham was winless going into that game, too. Plus they had a skinny, talentless quarterback. It seemed close enough to a sure thing to me.”

I shook my head slowly. “As my grandpa Schier used to say, ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ Live and learn, buddy. Let Dudley have his moment of glory. Besides, payback is sublime.”

Thinking back on it, that may not have been the wisest thing to say to Harvey.

***

A week passed, and I worked on my student paperwork in preparation for the coming holidays. My office colleague broke the pedantic silence that had reigned in the room.

“Rindler flux! The sonuvagun somehow created an inertial shield. That’s got to be it!”

I looked over at Harvey, who had dashed to one of his whiteboards and begun to scrawl complex equations across it.

By now, I was used to my friend’s outspoken bursts of inspiration. It had been the practice at Manley to pair up scholars with different academic backgrounds, in an effort to foster synergistic thinking. Sadly, it was rare for me to be able to contribute anything of significance to Harvey’s arcane scientific speculations. But I was talented at making off-the-wall comments that were sometimes tangentially useful.

“Inertia is something I know a little about,” I said. “My son on a Sunday morning, for example. Or for that matter, my own scholastic situation, endlessly treading water as an Associate Professor. But Rynderfux? Surely that’s a troll’s name, isn’t it? What are you on about, Harvey?”

“Rindler flux, George. The football pass from last week. Dudley. And you’re not that far off the mark. Except it’s a gremlin we’re talking about here, not a troll.”

The old don paused at his scribbling and swiveled to face me, his long gray mane swirling in the air behind him. “Look, what we call ‘inertia’ is the resistance of a mass to a change in velocity or direction of travel, right? It’s a fundamental principle of classical Newtonian physics. But it’s something that can’t be derived from First Principles–hence, a gremlin. Look here.”

Harvey continued to scrawl equations on the board. I followed some of them, but without a full context, I had a hard time making any sense of their logic or progression. Almost inevitably, Harvey started any whiteboard exercise with the simple equation ‘F = ma’–force equals mass times acceleration. That was in deference to his hero, Isaac Newton. But the unexpected directions he took from that point on usually made my head spin.

“You provided the hint, George. A trick football. Think of one that’s been doctored in a manner that preserves most of its starting inertia in the face of interfering forces–gravity, frictional effects, that sort of thing. But what is inertia? What causes it, where does it come from? Ah, that’s the question, now, isn’t it?” The old scholar beamed, his ancient, lined face suddenly taking on color and life.

“I have the distinct feeling you’re going to tell me that Rynderfux is the culprit.”

Rindler flux, George! Follow me a bit further, here. If the electromagnetic quantum vacuum is represented as a zero-point field, stochastic electrodynamics predicts the existence of an energy flow in accelerated reference frames. That’s expressed by this equation, here. The energy has been termed the ‘Rindler flux,’ and it’s thought to be composed of virtual photons. But if we let this virtual energy flow interact with matter, we can also calculate a force, represented by this expression. You’ll note it’s a reactive force, and it’s proportional to acceleration–a characteristic that’s the very hallmark of inertia!”

“But virtual isn’t real, Harvey. That’s why they call it that.”

Au contraire, my young colleague! The froth of virtual energy in the vacuum is as real as rain. It’s been measured to an accuracy of five percent using Casimir force detectors. But the thing is, how would you go about disconnecting the ‘virtual’ Rindler flux from the ‘real’ counteracting forces of gravity and friction that operate on the local mass of our theoretical football?”

I leaned back in my chair and propped my feet up on my desk. “I suppose you could shoot a beam of canceling waves at the football as it’s traveling through the air. Like a laser beam, or something like that.”

“Ineffectual. Oh yes, I’m quite sure those Framingham mechanical and electrical engineering lab boys could cobble up a laser tracking device, given enough time and money. But I can think of no sort of external electromagnetic energy wave that would influence the zero-point field. No, this is something more localized. What’s inside a football, George?”

“Gas, under pressure. Could be a pure element, or a molecular compound. Or a mixture of both.”

Harvey moved to his other whiteboard, the one he reserved for chemical matters.

“It all comes down to quantum chemical stoichiometry, George. It always does, doesn’t it?”

Harvey began to scribble furiously on the whiteboard, and I went back to working on my class paperwork. I knew the signs; Harvey would be occupied for hours. The old professor occasionally stopped and consulted a text pulled from one of the many stacks of books lying on the floor behind his desk. Now and again, I heard Harvey mutter a few words: some curses, some self-deprecating comments, occasionally a loud “ha!” as he triumphantly took another successful step along his mental trail.

In the late afternoon, I wrapped up my work and prepared to leave the university office. I bade Harvey goodbye, but I wasn’t sure if the professor heard me, engrossed as he was in his calculations.

***

A little after midnight, the telephone by the side of my bed rang. My wife murmured and turned over while I clumsily picked up the phone. I heard Harvey Atwood’s excited voice on the other end of the line.

“George! You’re the geometry guy: What’s the close-packing density of unit spheres?”

“Pi over the square root of eighteen. Roughly point seven four aught eight,” I muttered.

I marveled, as I roused myself to full consciousness, about the nature of that holy inner tabernacle from which the answer had sprung. I was sure I couldn’t have dredged it up while fully awake, even if the life of my wife and first-born child were at stake.

“Two modes possible,” I continued. “Cubic-centered packing and hexagonal-centered packing. But they both have the same close-packing density; every sphere is surrounded by twelve others. In either mode, the density voids are configured as concave-planar octahedrons and cuboctahedrons. Harvey, are you still at it? Don’t you have a home to . . . to go home to?”

“Yes! That confirms it. And yes! Home is wherever my mind is, George. Bless you. I’ve got it, now. If it’s ccp mode, it’s a chlorine-xenon126 lattice. If it’s hcp it’s got to be chlorine-xenon128. Now if I can only figure out how to get hold of those rare isotopes, and make them stick together.”

“Professor Johnson could probably help you. In the morning, Harvey, the morning! Don’t you dare call him tonight. Your karma isn’t good enough to be able to torque off two colleagues in a single night.” I sat up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “And now that you’ve got me fully awake, what’s unit sphere packing density have to do with footballs? I’d have to work out the figure for the closest packing density of footballs. Not a trivial exercise, I fear; probably will take me a couple of weeks, at best. But maybe there’s a paper in it…”

“Not the footballs! The Planck particles inside them. The places where the virtual energy emanates from.”

“Now you’re talking woodworking to me, Harvey. Let me get this straight: You’ve discovered that sawdust negates inertia?”

“No, no, no. It’s all about alignment, George. The gas molecule has to precisely emulate the shape of the quantum matrix surrounding it, consisting of nested Planck spheres. That’s needed for proper resonance. And the atomic separation of the gas atoms has to be sized just so to balance the Casimir effects. Hence the isotopic selection. Think crystalline construction, but in a gaseous manifestation. Trust me on this.”

“Harvey, I’ll trust that you’ve finally gone insane from lack of food and sleep.”

Harvey cackled and hung up. I had heard that cackle only once before in my relationship with Professor Atwood: when the man had worked out the final chemical composition and metallurgical structure of a room-temperature superconducting compound, five years ago. No one had yet figured out how to make the compound stable, but there had been enough industrial interest in it to ensure that Harvey never needed to worry about surviving on his paltry Manley University pension alone.

***

Professor Atwood was strictly a theoretical scientist. He was lost, utterly lost in the tangible world of the experimental laboratory. He wandered through one now, tripping over cables and hoses, threatening delicate glassware setups and vials of dangerous liquids. I followed him watchfully. Dr. Johnson, the director of the lab, tried to capture Harvey’s attention, hoping to save a serious mishap.

“This worries me a little, Harvey,” Johnson said. “If your theory is correct, what’s to stop this compound from ignoring our present velocity through space? I’d hate to think of the reaction vessel suddenly staying where the Earth was, a second before.”

Harvey tripped over another hose, and I caught him before he fell into a precarious arrangement of retorts and glass distillation coils.

“A well-reasoned question, Johnson, and one which I’ve assessed in depth,” Harvey replied. “The Planck matrix may indeed be whizzing past, in a relative sense, at several thousand miles per second. But the negated energy network inside the container will cleave to local conditions. Its starting inertial frame of reference will hold fast and true to ours. I guarantee it. There will be a minimal threshold of relative velocity required to trigger inertia-free movement of the test article. Everything will be fine, so long as we don’t jerk it around too rapidly. In light of that, you’d be wise to use a very low flow rate to inject the gases.”

Johnson scowled. “I have to say, I’d feel better if Newton or Einstein were here to back you up on all of this. What’s the metering ratio, chlorine to xenon126?”

“Twelve moles to one. That’s twelve point oh, oh, oh, precisely. My colleague, Dr. Schier, has the gas test vessel.”

I pulled an evacuated football out from under my jacket and handed it to Dr. Johnson. I had never felt quite so foolish in my entire academic career.

Johnson studied the flat leather object with an expression of surprise mixed with disdain. “Target pressure?”

I scratched my head. “I haven’t been able to find the rules regarding football inflation pressure. Let’s just say thirty PSI.” I handed a ball inflation needle to Johnson, and felt my face redden even further. “In case you didn’t have one handy.”

Dr. Johnson, frowning, snatched the needle away from me. He licked it, pushed it through the rubber inflation orifice on the football, then arranged the complicated metering and regulating devices necessary to fill the ball with the exact specified gas composition and pressure.

Once it commenced at the low flow rate that Atwood had recommended, the gas injection took about thirty seconds to complete. Johnson pulled the needle back out in one quick motion, then lifted the now-plump football gently from the lab bench where it sat.

“Well, I’m gobsmacked. Darned thing’s got no weight at all! Come see.”

I took the ball carefully from Johnson, exhaled an expletive, and removed my hands from it. The football hovered in the air in front of us, four feet off the lab floor.

“So it was cubic-centered packing, after all,” Harvey said. “Sometimes you just get lucky. Would that I could have such luck in my public wagers…”

The elderly scholar approached the floating football, wrapped his bony hands around it and fondled it for a few moments. The spidery fingers of his right hand found the laces and spread across them. He cocked his arm, bringing the ball slowly up behind his ear, then threw it as hard as he could toward the rear loading dock of the lab.

Harvey had never actually thrown a football in his life, and, as a consequence, he produced a weak ‘air ball’ toss. As it happened, it was a fortunate flub on his part. The wobbling football sailed straight up toward the ceiling over our heads. It tore through the roof like it was made of wet tissue paper; in fact, no barrier made of ordinary mass or electromagnetic energy could ever again influence the local momentum of that object. Presumably, it continued in a straight line through the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to outer space.

We all stared at the neat hole in the roof. I think it’s fair to say that none of us, Atwood included, had fully expected this first test to be so successful.

Harvey broke the silence. “Now, if we can only figure out how to tone it down a bit–and be properly circumspect about its substitution–we’ll surely have a winning team next year.” He smiled broadly, clapping each of us on our shoulders. “Gentlemen, we’ve given the Manley football program a new lease on life!”

I chuckled. “As well as having inaugurated the football space race.”

***

Dudley Luttle was a short, fat man with a round, oily face. When he grinned, as he was doing now, his beady eyes all but disappeared behind his plump cheeks.

“Harvey! So glad to see you. Sorry the football season’s over; I enjoyed our last wager. Enjoyed it very much, indeed!”

Harvey, in response to the all-too-familiar, squeaky voice behind him, turned in his seat at the banquet table to face his nemesis. “Dudley. How nice of you to attend the seminar. There’s always next year. We’ll be ready. I trust you’ll be attending my presentation tomorrow morning?”

“I wouldn’t miss a chance to carp and quibble over your latest crackpottery, Harvey. Whatever the subject matter is, it’ll always be worthy of public ridicule.”

“Dudley, I don’t believe you’ve ever met my good friend and colleague, Dr. Schier.”

I shook Dudley’s hand and suffered the unpleasant sensation of having fondled a dead squid. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Dudley. Particularly, your talents at picking the winning team.”

Dudley laughed; it was a raspy, high pitched squeal, much like the sound a pig might make if squeezed too tightly. “Ah, yes. Football: a fascinating sport, ruled by force and inertia. Semi-elastic bodies pounding together, balls flying high in the air. As a physicist, it makes me tingly all over just thinking about it!”

“I’m sure it does, Dudley,” Harvey said. “Just for you, during my seminar I’ll work in a sidebar on the aerodynamics of the thrown football. And I’ll even include some speculations on how they might be improved.”

“Excellent! Although I have my own ideas on that score. Ideas that have been tested and are eminently practicable, I might add.”

Dudley squealed again as he left our table to irritate the other guests at the seminar banquet.

“What a thoroughly unpleasant person,” I said. “I’m beginning to understand why you dislike him so much.”

“It goes way beyond dislike, George. I detest the very zero-point field he occupies at any given moment. If we were nothing but amoebas, I’d want to strangle the life out of him with my pseudopods. I’d love nothing better than to go back in time, before he was conceived, and slay his parents. I’d–”

“But tell me, Harvey: how do you really feel about the man?”

We both laughed and took a long draft out of our champagne glasses.

***

“. . . and thus we see that materials of this permeability and of this precise hyperboloid configuration could produce a repulsive Casimir effect. Of course, the accuracy required is well beyond current manufacturing capability. But we can speculate on the future commercial implications of this finding. Any questions to this point?”

Sitting at the back of the lecture hall, I watched Professor Atwood pause in his presentation, lean his head back and stare at the ceiling. A squeaky voice suddenly echoed through the room.

“Harvey, you may be correct in your conclusion, but you’re utterly fatally wrong in your derivation of it.”

Harvey lowered his head and looked at Dudley Luttle, sitting in the front row. He scowled. “And would my esteemed colleague, Dr. Luttle, graciously deign to correct my humble calculations?”

Dudley pushed his fat frame up from his seat and waddled over to the whiteboard. He snatched the marker from Harvey’s hand and, standing on tiptoe, slashed through a term in Harvey’s penultimate equation.

“This renormalization is incorrect and is falsely contrived,” he said. “It has no basis for being there.”

“I daresay it’s fully justified, Dudley. It’s solid and it’s reasonable. I’d bet on it.”

Dudley turned to face Harvey, a smirk forming on his porcine face. “And how much would you bet, my friend? I warn you, don’t make the wager too dear for you to lose. Because you will.”

Harvey looked flustered; his eyes flitted around the room. “I have a full bottle of champagne from the banquet last night in my briefcase over there, Dudley. I was going to take it home with me for New Year’s Eve, but I’ll stake it here. I’ll call your bluff.”

“Fine.” Dudley turned back to the board. “You’ve engaged the cutoff frequency variable here, when you shouldn’t have. That’s a mistake even an undergraduate student wouldn’t succumb to. Surely, you must see that the eigenvalues of the Hamiltonian disallow it. Look here.”

I heard a few colleagues in the hall utter a tut and a harumph over Dudley’s crass rebuke, while others muttered a groan of sympathy for Professor Atwood.

Dudley scribbled two lines of equations to one side of the whiteboard, proving his point, and slapped the marker down on the lectern, loudly and triumphantly. “Read ‘em and weep, Harvey. Now, pour me a tall one. A bit of the bubbly would go well, right now. Especially in front of all our learned colleagues–most of whom know how to do proper math!”

Harvey turned beet red. Whether it was from anger or extreme embarrassment, I couldn’t be sure. He removed the bottle from his briefcase, untwisted the wire wrap at the top and pulled the cap off with a loud pop. Dudley grabbed an empty plastic water cup from the lectern and held it under the bottle as Harvey slowly poured it. The fat man drained the filled cup in one great swallow and let out a wet belch.

“I do so enjoy our wagers, Harvey,” Dudley said. “They really raise my spirits–”

At that moment, Dudley’s small eyes opened widely. He dropped the empty cup and flailed his arms in consternation. His bulbous body had risen a fraction of an inch above the floor. “You son of a bitch!” he exclaimed. “How–?”

“A bit too gassy for you, Dudley?”

Harvey suddenly gained complete composure, smiled and faced the seminar attendees. “Dr. Luttle was right. I made an error in my calculations, an unforgivable sophomoric mistake. I stand corrected, and for that I must give our colleague his proper due.”

Harvey turned back to Dudley, grabbed him by his lapels and yanked him skyward, flinging him through the ceiling of the hall, out into the atmosphere, destined for outer space and a long, slow trip to the end of the universe.

Shocked silence pervaded the hall, as the full nature of Harvey’s coup registered in the minds of the assembled scholars.

***

Later, the police took depositions and snapped photographs of the hole in the ceiling of the lecture hall. They found no useful forensic evidence. The examiners discovered an empty champagne bottle and a plastic cup on the floor near the lectern, but they were bone-dry and–rather uncannily–they lacked any trace at all of recoverable residue.

The eyewitness accounts were all reasonably consistent, but so unbelievable as to be useless in any court of law. Some had said that they saw Professor Atwood toss Dudley toward the ceiling; others thought they saw him trying to restrain the man by his lapels, to keep him grounded. To the investigating officers, neither version was of any use in explaining what had really happened to the Framingham physics Professor.

When they interrogated me, I admitted that there had been a long and bitter rivalry between the Professor and Dudley, and that, in fact, Atwood hated the man. But I pointed out that there was hardly a person in the room who didn’t harbor the same feelings. This was apparently confirmed after further interviews.

With no forensic evidence and no eyewitness accounts that made any rational sense, the investigators scuttled the case in the “missing persons” file. They sought no charges. The institutions of justice wheeled on to other cases that were potentially more fulfilling.

I later learned, after pressing a close colleague of Dudley’s, that the little professor had, in fact, slipped a doctored football into the last Framingham-Manley game. He had developed a unique, clear skin coating that reduced the ball’s friction through the air, giving it a significant boost in aerodynamic performance.

As for Professor Harvey Atwood, his ensuing papers received few peer rebuttals–and those he did get were worded in a very tactful and gracious manner. His seminar presentations were not well-attended. And, unfortunately, none of his academic colleagues ever took him up on a wager again.

That was a shame, because he could have made a killing the next season, betting on the Manley football team.

Gary Cuba’s short fiction has appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Now retired after a long engineering career in the commercial nuclear power industry, he lives with his wife, thirteen unruly cats and a couple of slightly less unruly dogs in South Carolina USA. Visit his website at http://www.thefoggiestnotion.com.

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