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THEORIES OF FLIGHT

Petrovitch stared at the sphere in his hands, turning it slowly to reveal different parts of its intricately patterned surface. Shining silver lines of metal in curves and whorls shone against the black resin matrix, the seeming chaos replicated throughout the hidden depths of the globe; a single strand of wire that swam up and down, around and around, its path determined precisely by equations he himself had discovered.

It was a work of art; dense, cold, beautiful, a miracle of manufacture. A kilometre of fine alloy wound up into a ball the size of a double fist.

But it was supposed to be more than that. He let it fall heavily onto his desk and flicked his glasses off his face. His eyes, always so blue, were surrounded with red veins. He scrubbed at them again.

The yebani thing didn’t, wouldn’t work, no matter how much he yelled and hit it. The first practical test of the Ekanobi-Petrovitch laws, and it just sat there, dumb, blind, motionless.

Stanford – Stanford! Those raspizdyay kolhoznii amerikanskij – were breathing down his neck, and he knew that if he didn’t crack it soon, they’d either beat him to his own discovery or debunk the whole effort. He was damned if he was going to face them across a lecture hall having lost the race. And Pif would string him up by his yajtza, which was a more im mediate problem.

So, the sphere didn’t work. It should. Every test he’d conducted on it showed that it’d been made with micrometer precision, exactly in the configuration he’d calculated. He’d run it with the right voltage.

Everything was perfect, and still, and still . . .

He picked up his glasses from where he’d thrown them. The same old room snapped into focus: the remnants of Pif’s time with him scattered across her old desk, the same pot plants existing on a diet of cold coffee, the light outside leaking in around the yellowed slats of the Venetian blinds.

Sound leaked in, too: sirens that howled towards the crack of distant gunfire, carried on cold, still winter air. Banging and clattering, hammers and drills, the reverberations of scaffolding. A tank slapping its caterpillar tracks down on the tarmac.

None of it loud enough to distract him from the hum of the fluorescent tube overhead.

He opened a drawer and pulled out a sheet of printed paper, which he placed squarely in front of him. He stared at the symbols on it, knowing the answer was there somewhere, if only he knew where to look. He turned his wedding ring in precise quarter circles, still finding it a cold and alien presence on his body.

Time passed. Voices in the corridor outside grew closer, louder, then faded.

Petrovitch looked up suddenly. His eyes narrowed and he pushed his glasses back up his nose. His heart spun faster, producing a surge of blood that pricked his skin with sweat.

Now everything was slow, deliberate, as he held on to his idea. He reached for a pencil and turned the sheet of paper over, blank side to him. He started to scratch out a diagram, and
when he’d finished, some numbers to go with it.

Petrovitch put down the pencil and checked his answer.

Dubiina, he whispered to himself, durak, balvan.

The ornate sphere had taunted him from across the desk for the last time. He was going to be its master now. He reached over and fastened his hand around it, then threw it in the air with such casual defiance that it would have had his head of department leaping to save it.

He caught it deftly on its way down, and knew that it would never have to touch the floor again.

He carried it to the door, flung it open, and stepped through. The two paycops lolling beside the lift caught a flavour of his mood. One nudged the other, who turned to see the white blond hair and tight-lipped smile of Petrovitch advancing towards them at a steady gait.

“Doctor Petrovitch?” asked one. “Is there a problem?”

Petrovitch held the sphere up in front of him. “Out of the way,” he said. “Science coming through.”

He ran down the stairs; two storeys, sliding his hand over the banister and only taking a firm hold to let his momentum carry him through the air for the broad landings. Now was not the time to wait, foot-tapping, for a crawling lift car that gave him the creeps anyway. Everything was urgent, imminent, immanent.

Second floor: his professor had given him two graduate students, and he had had little idea what to do with them. The least he could do to compensate for several months of makework was to include them in this. He needed witnesses, anyway. And their test rig. Which may or may not be completed: Petrovitch hadn’t seen either student for a week, or it might have been two.

Either way, he was certain he could recognise them again.

He kicked the door to their lab space open. They were there, sitting in front of an open cube of wood, a cat’s cradle of thin wires stretched inside. An oscilloscope – old school cathode tube – made a pulsing green line across its gridded screen.

The woman – blonde, skin as pale as parchment, eyes grey like a ghost’s . . . McNeil: yes, that was her name – glanced over her shoulder. She jumped up when she saw Petrovitch’s expression and what he was carrying.

“You’ve finished it.”
“This? Yeah, about a week ago. Should have mentioned it, but that’s not what’s important now.”

He advanced on a steel trolley. In time-honoured fashion, new equipment was built in the centre of the lab. The old was pushed to the wall to be cannibalised for parts or left to fossilise.

He inspected the collection of fat transformers on the trolley’s top shelf. When he squatted down to inspect the lower deck, he found some moving coil meters and something that might have been the heavy-duty switching gear from a power station. “Do either of you need any of this?”

He waited all of half a second for a reply before seizing the trolley in his free hand and trying to tip it over. Some of the transformers were big ferrite ones, and he couldn’t manage it one handed. McNeil and the man – Petrovitch’s mind was too full to remember his name – looked at each other.

“You,” he said to the man, “catch.”

He threw the sphere and, without waiting to see if it had a safe arrival, wedged his foot under one of the trolley’s castors and heaved. The contents slid and fell, collecting in a blocky heap on the fifties lino.

He righted the trolley and looked around for what he needed.

“Power supply there,” he pointed, and McNeil scurried to get it. “That bundle of leads there. Multimeter, any, doesn’t matter. And the Mukhanov book.”

The other student was frozen in place, holding the sphere like it was made of crystal. Hugo Dominguez, that was it. Had problems pronouncing his sibilants.

“You all right with that?”

Dominguez nodded dumbly.

The quantum gravity textbook was the last thing slapped on the trolley, and Petrovitch took the handle again. “Right. Follow me.”

McNeil trotted by his side. “Doctor Petrovitch,” she said.

And that was almost as strange as being married. Doctor. What else could the university have done, but confer him with the title as soon as was practically possible?

“Yeah?”
“Where are we going?”
“Basement. And pray to whatever god you believe in that we’re not over a tube line.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Sure.” They’d reached the lift. He leaned over the trolley and punched the button to go down.

“Okay,” she said, twisting a strand of hair around her finger. “Why?”
“Because what I was doing before wasn’t working. This will.”

The lift pinged and the door slid aside. Petrovitch took a good long look at the empty space before gritting his teeth and launching the trolley inside. He ushered the two students in, then after another moment’s hesitation on the threshold, he stepped in.

He reached behind him and thumbed the stud marked B for basement.

As the lift descended, they waited for him to continue. “What’s the mass of the Earth?” he said. When neither replied, he rolled his eyes. “Six times ten to the twenty-four kilos. All that mass produces a pathetic nine point eight one metres per second squared acceleration at the surface. An upright ape like me can outpull the entire planet just by getting out of a chair.”

“Which is why you had us build the mass balance,” she said.

“Yeah. You’re going to have to take it apart and bring it down here.” The door slid back to reveal a long corridor with dim overhead lighting. “Not here here. This is just to show that it works. We’ll get another lab set up. Find a kettle. Stuff like that.”

He pushed the trolley out before the lift was summoned to a higher floor.

“Doctor,” said Dominguez, finally finding his voice, “that still does not explain why we are now underground.”

“Doesn’t it?” Petrovitch blinked. “I guess not. Find a socket for the power supply while I wire up the rest of it.” He took the sphere from Dominguez and turned it around until he found the two holes. His hand chased out a couple of leads from the bird’s nest of wires, spilling some of them to the floor. The lift disappeared upstairs, making a grinding noise as it went.

They worked together. McNeil joined cables together until she’d made two half-metre lengths. Dominguez set up the multi-meter and twisted the dial to read current. Petrovitch plugged two jacks into the sphere, and finally placed Mukhanov and Winitzki’s tome on the floor. He set the sphere on top of it.

“Either of you two worked it out yet?” he asked. “No? Don’t worry: I’m supposed to be a genius, and it took me a week. Hugo, dial up four point eight volts. Watch the current. If it looks like it’s going to melt something, turn it off.”

The student had barely put his hand on the control when the lift returned. A dozen people spilled out, all talking at once.

Yobany stos! ” He glared out over the top of his glasses. “I’m trying to conduct an epoch-making experiment which will turn this place into a shrine for future generations. So shut the huy up.”

One of the crowd held up his camera phone, and Petrovitch thought that wasn’t such a bad idea.

“You. Yes, you. Come here. I don’t bite. Much. Stand there.”

He propelled the young man front and centre. “Is it recording? Good.”

All the time, more people were arriving, but it didn’t matter. The time was now.

“Yeah, okay. Hugo? Hit it.”
Nothing happened.
“You are hitting it, right?”
“Yes, Doctor Petrovitch.”
“Then why isn’t the little red light on?” He sat back on his heels. “Chyort. There’s no yebani power in the ring main.”

There was an audible groan.

Petrovitch looked up again at all the expectant faces. “Unless someone wants to stick their fingers in a light socket, I suggest you go and find a very long extension lead.”

Some figures at the back raced away, their feet slapping against the concrete stairs. When they came back, it wasn’t with an extension lead proper, but one they’d cobbled together out of the cable from several janitorial devices and gaffer tape. The bare ends of the wire were live, and it was passed over the heads of the watching masses gingerly.

It took a few moments more to desleeve the plug from the boxy power supply and connect everything together. The little red light glimmered on.

Petrovitch looked up at the cameraman. “Take two?”
“We’re on.”

Petrovitch got down on his hands and knees, and took one last look at the inert black sphere chased with silver lines. In a moment, it would be transformed, and with it, the world. No longer a thing of beauty, it would become just another tool.

“Hugo?” He was aware of McNeil crouched beside him. She was holding her breath, just like he was.

Dominguez flicked the on switch and slowly turned the dial. The digital figures on the multimeter started to flicker.

Then, without fuss, without sound, the sphere leapt off the book and into the air. It fell back a little, rose, fell, rose, fell, each subsequent oscillation smaller than the previous one until it was still again: only it was resting at shin-height with no visible means of support.

Someone started clapping. Another joined in, and another, until the sound of applause echoed, magnified, off the walls.

His heart was racing again, the tiny turbine in his chest having tasted the amount of adrenaline flooding into his blood. He felt dizzy, euphoric, ecstatic even. Here was science elevated to a religious experience. Dominguez was transfixed, motionless like his supervisor. It was McNeil who was the first of the three to move. She reached forward and tapped the floating sphere with her fingernail. It slipped sideways, pulling the cables with it until it lost momentum and stopped. She waved her hand under it, over it.

She turned to Petrovitch and grinned. He staggered to his feet and faced the crowd. “Da! Da!Da! ” He punched the air each time, and found he couldn’t stop. Soon he had all of them, young and old, men and women, fists in the air, chanting “Da! ” at the tops of their voices.

He reached over and hauled Dominguez up. He held his other hand out to McNeil, who crawled up his arm and clung on to him in a desperate embrace. Thus encumbered, he turned to the camera phone and extended his middle finger – not his exactly, but he was at least its owner. “Yob materi vashi, Stanford.”