Safety devices that do not protect.
The “unsinkable” ships that, before the days of Bergenholm and of atomic and cosmic energy, sank into the waters of the earth.
More particularly, safety devices which, while protecting against one agent of destruction, attract magnet-like another and worse. Such as the armored cable within the walls of a wooden house. It protects the electrical conductors within against accidental external shorts; but, inadequately grounded as it must of necessity be, it may attract and upon occasion has attracted the stupendous force of lightning. Then, fused, volatilized, flaming incandescent throughout the length, breadth, and height of a dwelling, that dwelling’s existence thereafter is to be measured in minutes.
Specifically, four lightning rods. The lightning rods protecting the chromium, glass, and plastic home of Neal Cloud. Those rods were adequately grounded, grounded with copper-silver cables the bigness of a strong man’s arm; for Neal Cloud, atomic physicist, knew his lightning and he was taking no chances whatever with the safety of his lovely wife and their three wonderful kids.
He did not know, he did not even suspect, that under certain conditions of atmospheric potential and of ground-magnetic stress his perfectly designed lightning-rod system would become a super-powerful magnet for flying vortices of atomic disintegration.
And now Neal Cloud, atomic physicist, sat at his desk in a strained, dull apathy. His face was a yellowish-gray white, his tendoned hands gripped rigidly the arms of his chair. His eyes, hard and lifeless, stared unseeingly past the small, three-dimensional block portrait of all that had made life worth living.
For his guardian against lightning had been a vortex-magnet at the moment when a luckless wight had attempted to abate the nuisance of a “loose” atomic vortex. That wight died, of course--they almost always do--and the vortex, instead of being destroyed, was simply broken up into an indefinite number of widely-scattered new vortices. And one of these bits of furious, uncontrolled energy, resembling more nearly a handful of material rived from a sun than anything else with which ordinary man is familiar, darted toward and crashed downward to earth through Neal Cloud’s new house.
That home did not burn; it simply exploded. Nothing of it, in it, or around it stood a chance, for in a fractional second of time the place where it had been was a crater of seething, boiling lava--a crater which filled the atmosphere to a height of miles with poisonous vapors; which flooded all circumambient space with lethal radiations.
Cosmically, the whole thing was infinitesimal. Ever since man learned how to liberate intra-atomic energy, the vortices of disintegration had been breaking out of control. Such accidents had been happening, were happening, and would continue indefinitely to happen. More than one world, perhaps, had been or would be consumed to the last gram by such loose atomic vortices. What of that? Of what real importance are a few grains of sand to an ocean beach five thousand miles long, a hundred miles wide, and ten miles deep?
And even to that individual grain of sand called “Earth”--or, in modern parlance, “Sol Three,” or “Tellus of Sol”, or simply “Tellus”--the affair was of negligible importance. One man had died; but, in dying, he had added one more page to the thick bulk of negative results already on file. That Mrs. Cloud and her children had perished was merely unfortunate. The vortex itself was not yet a real threat to Tellus. It was a “new” one, and thus it would be a long time before it would become other than a local menace. And well before that could happen--before even the oldest of Tellus’ loose vortices had eaten away much of her mass or poisoned much of her atmosphere, her scientists would have solved the problem. It was unthinkable that Tellus, the point of origin and the very center of Galactic Civilization, should cease to exist.
But to Neal Cloud the accident was the ultimate catastrophe. His personal universe had crashed in ruins; what was left was not worth picking up. He and Jo had been married for almost twenty years and the bonds between them had grown stronger, deeper, truer with every passing day. And the kids ... It couldn’t have happened ... fate COULDN’T do this to him ... but it had ... it could. Gone ... gone ... GONE...
And to Neal Cloud, atomic physicist, sitting there at his desk in torn, despairing abstraction, with black maggots of thought gnawing holes in his brain, the catastrophe was doubly galling because of its cruel irony. For he was second from the top in the Atomic Research Laboratory; his life’s work had been a search for a means of extinguishment of exactly such loose vortices as had destroyed his all.
His eyes focussed vaguely upon the portrait. Clear, honest gray eyes ... lines of character and of humor ... sweetly curved lips, ready to smile or to kiss...
He wrenched his eyes away and scribbled briefly upon a sheet of paper. Then, getting up stiffly, he took the portrait and moved woodenly across the room to a furnace. As though enshrining it he placed the plastic block upon a refractory between the electrodes and threw a switch. After the flaming arc had done its work he turned and handed the paper to a tall man, dressed in plain gray leather, who had been watching him with quiet, understanding eyes. Significant enough to the initiated of the importance of this laboratory is the fact that it was headed by an Unattached Lensman.
“As of now, Phil, if it’s QX with you.”
The Gray Lensman took the document, glanced at it, and slowly, meticulously, tore it into sixteen equal pieces.
“Uh, uh, Storm,” he denied, gently. “Not a resignation. Leave of absence, yes--indefinite--but not a resignation.”
“Why?” It was scarcely a question; Cloud’s voice was level, uninflected. “I won’t be worth the paper I’d waste.”
“Now, no,” the Lensman conceded, “but the future’s another matter. I haven’t said anything so far, because to anyone who knew you and Jo as I knew you it was abundantly clear that nothing could be said.” Two hands gripped and held. “For the future, though, four words were uttered long ago, that have never been improved upon. ‘This, too, shall pass.’”
“You think so?”
“I don’t think so, Storm--I know so. I’ve been around a long time. You are too good a man, and the world has too much use for you, for you to go down permanently out of control. You’ve got a place in the world, and you’ll be back--” A thought struck the Lensman, and he went on in an altered tone. “You wouldn’t--but of course you wouldn’t--you couldn’t.”
“I don’t think so. No, I won’t--that never was any kind of a solution to any problem.”
Nor was it. Until that moment, suicide had not entered Cloud’s mind, and he rejected it instantly. His kind of man did not take the easy way out.
After a brief farewell Cloud made his way to an elevator and was whisked down to the garage. Into his big blue DeKhotinsky Sixteen Special and away.
Through traffic so heavy that front-, rear-, and side-bumpers almost touched he drove with his wonted cool skill; even though, consciously, he did not know that the other cars were there. He slowed, turned, stopped, “gave her the oof,” all in correct response to flashing signals in all shapes and colors--purely automatically. Consciously, he did not know where he was going, nor care. If he thought at all, his numbed brain was simply trying to run away from its own bitter imaging--which, if he had thought at all, he would have known to be a hopeless task. But he did not think; he simply acted, dumbly, miserably. His eyes saw, optically; his body reacted, mechanically; his thinking brain was completely in abeyance.
Into a one-way skyway he rocketed, along it over the suburbs and into the transcontinental super-highway. Edging inward, lane after lane, he reached the “unlimited” way--unlimited, that is, except for being limited to cars of not less than seven hundred horsepower, in perfect mechanical condition, driven by registered, tested drivers at speeds not less than one hundred and twenty-five miles an hour--flashed his registry number at the control station, and shoved his right foot down to the floor.
Now everyone knows that an ordinary DeKhotinsky Sporter will do a hundred and forty honestly-measured miles in one honestly measured hour; but very few ordinary drivers have ever found out how fast one of those brutal big souped-up Sixteens can wheel. They simply haven’t got what it takes to open one up.
“Storm” Cloud found out that day. He held that two-and-a-half-ton Juggernaut on the road, wide open, for two solid hours. But it didn’t help. Drive as he would, he could not outrun that which rode with him. Beside him and within him and behind him. For Jo was there. Jo and the kids, but mostly Jo. It was Jo’s car as much as it was his. “Babe, the big blue ox,” was Jo’s pet name for it; because, like Paul Bunyan’s fabulous beast, it was pretty nearly six feet between the eyes. Everything they had ever had was that way. She was in the seat beside him. Every dear, every sweet, every luscious, lovely memory of her was there ... and behind him, just out of eye-corner visibility, were the three kids. And a whole lifetime of this loomed ahead--a vista of emptiness more vacuous far than the emptiest reaches of intergalactic space. Damnation! He couldn’t stand much more of--
High over the roadway, far ahead, a brilliant octagon flared red. That meant “STOP!” in any language. Cloud eased up his accelerator, eased down his mighty brakes. He pulled up at the control station and a trimly-uniformed officer made a gesture.
“Sorry, sir,” the policeman said, “but you’ll have to detour here. There’s a loose atomic vortex beside the road up ahead--
“Oh! It’s Dr. Cloud!” Recognition flashed into the guard’s eyes. “I didn’t recognize you at first. You can go ahead, of course. It’ll be two or three miles before you’ll have to put on your armor; you’ll know when better than anyone can tell you. They didn’t tell us they were going to send for you. It’s just a little new one, and the dope we got was that they were going to shove it off into the canyon with pressure.”
“They didn’t send for me.” Cloud tried to smile. “I’m just driving around--haven’t my armor along, even. So I guess I might as well go back.”
He turned the Special around. A loose vortex--new. There might be a hundred of them, scattered over a radius of two hundred miles. Sisters of the one that had murdered his family--the hellish spawn of that accursed Number Eleven vortex that that damnably incompetent bungling ass had tried to blow up ... Into his mind there leaped a picture, wire-sharp, of Number Eleven as he had last seen it, and simultaneously an idea hit him like a blow from a fist.
He thought. Really thought, now; cogently, intensely, clearly. If he could do it ... could actually blow out the atomic flame of an atomic vortex ... not exactly revenge, but ... By Klono’s brazen bowels, it would work--it’d have to work--he’d make it work! And grimly, quietly, but alive in every fiber now, he drove back toward the city practically as fast as he had come away.
If the Lensman was surprised at Cloud’s sudden reappearance in the laboratory he did not show it. Nor did he offer any comment as his erstwhile first assistant went to various lockers and cupboards, assembling meters, coils, tubes, armor, and other paraphernalia and apparatus.
“Guess that’s all I’ll need, Chief,” Cloud remarked, finally. “Here’s a blank check. If some of this stuff shouldn’t happen to be in usable condition when I get done with it, fill it out to suit, will you?”
“No,” and the Lensman tore up the check just as he had torn up the resignation. “If you want the stuff for legitimate purposes, you’re on Patrol business and it is the Patrol’s risk. If, on the other hand, you think that you’re going to try to snuff a vortex, the stuff stays here. That’s final, Storm.”
“You’re right--and wrong, Phil,” Cloud stated, not at all sheepishly. “I’m going to blow out Number One vortex with duodec, yes--but I’m really going to blow it out, not merely make a stab at it as an excuse for suicide, as you think.”
“How?” The big Lensman’s query was skepticism incarnate. “It can’t be done, except by an almost impossibly fortuitous accident. You yourself have been the most bitterly opposed of us all to these suicidal attempts.”
“I know it--I didn’t have the solution myself until a few hours ago--it hit me all at once. Funny I never thought of it before; it’s been right in sight all the time.”
“That’s the way with most problems,” the Chief admitted. “Plain enough after you see the key equation. Well, I’m perfectly willing to be convinced, but I warn you that I’ll take a lot of convincing--and someone else will do the work, not you.”
“When I get done you’ll see why I’ll pretty nearly have to do it myself. But to convince you, exactly what is the knot?”
“Variability,” snapped the older man. “To be effective, the charge of explosive at the moment of impact must match, within very close limits, the activity of the vortex itself. Too small a charge scatters it around, in vortices which, while much smaller than the original, are still large enough to be self-sustaining. Too large a charge simply rekindles the original vortex--still larger--in its original crater. And the activity that must be matched varies so tremendously, in magnitude, maxima, and minima, and the cycle is so erratic--ranging from seconds to hours without discoverable rhyme or reason--that all attempts to do so at any predetermined instant have failed completely. Why, even Kinnison and Cardynge and the Conference of Scientists couldn’t solve it, any more than they could work out a tractor beam that could be used as a tow-line on one.”
“Not exactly,” Cloud demurred. “They found that it could be forecast, for a few seconds at least--length of time directly proportional to the length of the cycle in question--by an extension of the calculus of warped surfaces.”
“Humph!” the Lensman snorted. “So what? What good is a ten-second forecast when it takes a calculating machine an hour to solve the equations ... Oh!” He broke off, staring.
“Oh,” he repeated, slowly, “I forgot that you’re a lightning calculator--a mathematical prodigy from the day you were born--who never has to use a calculating machine even to compute an orbit ... But there are other things.”
“I’ll say there are; plenty of them. I’d thought of the calculator angle before, of course, but there was a worse thing than variability to contend with...”
“What?” the Lensman demanded.
“Fear,” Cloud replied, crisply. “At the thought of a hand-to-hand battle with a vortex my brain froze solid. Fear--the sheer, stark, natural human fear of death, that robs a man of the fine edge of control and brings on the very death that he is trying so hard to avoid. That’s what had me stopped.”
“Right ... you may be right,” the Lensman pondered, his fingers drumming quietly upon his desk. “And you are not afraid of death--now--even subconsciously. But tell me, Storm, please, that you won’t invite it.”
“I will not invite it, sir, now that I’ve got a job to do. But that’s as far as I’ll go in promising. I won’t make any superhuman effort to avoid it. I’ll take all due precautions, for the sake of the job, but if it gets me, what the hell? The quicker it does, the better--the sooner I’ll be with Jo.”
“You believe that?”
“The vortices are as good as gone, then. They haven’t got any more chance than Boskone has of licking the Patrol.”
“I’m afraid so,” almost glumly. “The only way for it to get me is for me to make a mistake, and I don’t feel any coming on.”
“But what’s your angle?” the Lensman asked, interest lighting his eyes. “You can’t use the customary attack; your time will be too short.”
“Like this,” and, taking down a sheet of drafting paper, Cloud sketched rapidly. “This is the crater, here, with the vortex at the bottom, there. From the observers’ instruments or from a shielded set-up of my own I get my data on mass, emission, maxima, minima, and so on. Then I have them make me three duodec bombs--one on the mark of the activity I’m figuring on shooting at, and one each five percent over and under that figure--cased in neocarballoy of exactly the computed thickness to last until it gets to the center of the vortex. Then I take off in a flying suit, armored and shielded, say about here...”
“If you take off at all, you’ll take off in a suit, inside a one-man flitter,” the Lensman interrupted. “Too many instruments for a suit, to say nothing of bombs, and you’ll need more screen than a suit can deliver. We can adapt a flitter for bomb-throwing easily enough.”
“QX; that would be better, of course. In that case, I set my flitter into a projectile trajectory like this, whose objective is the center of the vortex, there. See? Ten seconds or so away, at about this point, I take my instantaneous readings, solve the equations at that particular warped surface for some certain zero time...”
“But suppose that the cycle won’t give you a ten-second solution?”
“Then I’ll swing around and try again until a long cycle does show up.”
“QX. It will, sometime.”
“Sure. Then, having everything set for zero time, and assuming that the activity is somewhere near my postulated value...”
“Assume that it isn’t--it probably won’t be,” the Chief grunted.
“I accelerate or decelerate--”
“Solving new equations all the while?”
“Sure--don’t interrupt so--until at zero time the activity, extrapolated to zero time, matches one of my bombs. I cut that bomb loose, shoot myself off in a sharp curve, and Z-W-E-E-E-T--POWIE! She’s out!” With an expressive, sweeping gesture.
“You hope,” the Lensman was frankly dubious. “And there you are, right in the middle of that explosion, with two duodec bombs outside your armor--or just inside your flitter.”
“Oh, no. I’ve shot them away several seconds ago, so that they explode somewhere else, nowhere near me.”
“I hope. But do you realize just how busy a man you are going to be during those ten or twelve seconds?”
“Fully.” Cloud’s face grew somber. “But I will be in full control. I won’t be afraid of anything that can happen--anything. And,” he went on, under his breath, “that’s the hell of it.”
“QX,” the Lensman admitted finally, “you can go. There are a lot of things you haven’t mentioned, but you’ll probably be able to work them out as you go along. I think I’ll go out and work with the boys in the lookout station while you’re doing your stuff. When are you figuring on starting?”
“How long will it take to get the flitter ready?”
“A couple of days. Say we meet you there Saturday morning?”
“Saturday the tenth, at eight o’clock. I’ll be there.”
And again Neal Cloud and Babe, the big blue ox, hit the road. And as he rolled the physicist mulled over in his mind the assignment to which he had set himself.
Like fire, only worse, intra-atomic energy was a good servant, but a terrible master. Man had liberated it before he could really control it. In fact, control was not yet, and perhaps never would be, perfect. Up to a certain size and activity, yes. They, the millions upon millions of self-limiting ones, were the servants. They could be handled, fenced in, controlled; indeed, if they were not kept under an exciting bombardment and very carefully fed, they would go out. But at long intervals, for some one of a dozen reasons--science knew so little, fundamentally, of the true inwardness of the intra-atomic reactions--one of these small, tame, self-limiting vortices flared, nova-like, into a large, wild, self-sustaining one. It ceased being a servant then, and became a master. Such flare-ups occurred, perhaps, only once or twice in a century on Earth; the trouble was that they were so utterly, damnably permanent. They never went out. And no data were ever secured: for every living thing in the vicinity of a flare-up died; every instrument and every other solid thing within a radius of a hundred feet melted down into the reeking, boiling slag of its crater.
Fortunately, the rate of growth was slow--as slow, almost, as it was persistent--otherwise Civilization would scarcely have had a planet left. And unless something could be done about loose vortices before too many years, the consequences would be really serious. That was why his laboratory had been established in the first place.
Nothing much had been accomplished so far. The tractor beam that would take hold of them had never been designed. Nothing material was of any use; it melted. Pressors worked, after a fashion: it was by the use of these beams that they shoved the vortices around, off into the waste places--unless it proved cheaper to allow the places where they had come into being to remain waste places. A few, through sheer luck, had been blown into self-limiting bits by duodec. Duodecaplylatomate, the most powerful, the most frightfully detonant explosive ever invented upon all the known planets of the First Galaxy. But duodec had taken an awful toll of life. Also, since it usually scattered a vortex instead of extinguishing it, duodec had actually caused far more damage than it had cured.
No end of fantastic schemes had been proposed, of course; of varying degrees of fantasy. Some of them sounded almost practical. Some of them had been tried; some of them were still being tried. Some, such as the perennially-appearing one of building a huge hemispherical hull in the ground under and around the vortex, installing an inertialess drive, and shooting the whole neighborhood out into space, were perhaps feasible from an engineering standpoint. They were, however, potentially so capable of making things worse that they would not be tried save as last-ditch measures. In short, the control of loose vortices was very much an unsolved problem.
Number One vortex, the oldest and worst upon Tellus, had been pushed out into the Badlands; and there, at eight o’clock on the tenth, Cloud started to work upon it.
The “lookout station,” instead of being some such ramshackle structure as might have been deduced from the Lensman’s casual terminology, was in fact a fully-equipped observatory. Its staff was not large--eight men worked in three staggered eight-hour shifts of two men each--but the instruments! To develop them had required hundreds of man-years of time and near-miracles of research, not the least of the problems having been that of developing shielded conductors capable of carrying truly through five-ply screens of force the converted impulses of the very radiations against which those screens were most effective. For the observatory, and the one long approach to it as well, had to be screened heavily; without such protection no life could exist there.
This problem and many others had been solved, however, and there the instruments were. Every phase and factor of the vortex’s existence and activity were measured and recorded continuously, throughout every minute of every day of every year. And all of these records were summed up, integrated, into the “Sigma” curve. This curve, while only an incredibly and senselessly tortuous line to the layman’s eye, was a veritable mine of information to the initiate.