The Bramble Bush

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Usually, if a man's gotten into bad trouble by getting into something, he's a fool to go back. But there are times.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

_There was a man in our town,
And he was wond’rous wise;
He jumped into a bramble bush,
And scratch’d out both his eyes!_
--Old Nursery Rhyme

Peter de Hooch was dreaming that the moon had blown up when he awakened. The room was dark except for the glowing night-light near the door, and he sat up trying to separate the dream from reality. He focused his eyes on the glow-plate. What had wakened him? Something had, he was sure, but there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary now.

The explosion in his dream had seemed extraordinarily realistic. He could still remember vividly the vibration and the cr-r-r-ump! of the noise. But there was no sign of what might have caused the dream sequence.

Maybe something fell, he thought. He swung his legs off his bed and padded barefoot over to the light switch. He was so used to walking under the light lunar gravity that he was no longer conscious of it. He pressed the switch, and the room was suddenly flooded with light. He looked around.

Everything was in place, apparently. There was nothing on the floor that shouldn’t be there. The books were all in their places in the bookshelf. The stuff on his desk seemed undisturbed.

The only thing that wasn’t as it should be was the picture on the wall. It was a reproduction of a painting by Pieter de Hooch, which he had always liked, aside from the fact that he had been named after the seventeenth-century Dutch artist. The picture was slightly askew on the wall.

He was sleepily trying to figure out the significance of that when the phone sounded. He walked over and picked it up. “Yeah?”

“Guz? Guz? Get over here quick!” Sam Willows’ voice came excitedly from the instrument.

“Whatsamatter, Puss?” he asked blearily.

“Number Two just blew! We need help, Guz! Fast!”

“I’m on my way!” de Hooch said.

“Take C corridor,” Willows warned. “A and B caved in, and the bulkheads have dropped. Make it snappy!”

“I’m gone already,” de Hooch said, dropping the phone back into place.

He grabbed his vacuum suit from its hanger and got into it as though his own room had already sprung an air leak.

Number Two has blown! he thought. That would be the one that Ferguson and Metty were working on. What had they been cooking? He couldn’t remember right off the bat. Something touchy, he thought; something pretty hot.

But that wouldn’t cause an atomic reactor to blow. It obviously hadn’t been a nuclear blow-up of any proportions, or he wouldn’t be here now, zipping up the front of his vac suit. Still, it had been powerful enough to shake the lunar crust a little or he wouldn’t have been wakened by the blast.

These new reactors could get out a lot more power, and they could do a lot more than the old ones could, but they weren’t as safe as the old heavy-metal reactors, by a long shot. None had blown up yet--quite--but there was still the chance. That’s why they were built on Luna instead of on Earth. Considering what they could do, de Hooch often felt that it would be safer if they were built out on some nice, safe asteroid--preferably one in the Jovian Trojan sector.

He clamped his fishbowl on tight, opened the door, and sprinted toward Corridor C.

The trouble with the Ditmars-Horst reactor was that it lacked any automatic negative-feedback system. If a D-H decided to go wild, it went wild. Fortunately, that rarely happened. The safe limits for reactions were quite wide--wider, usually, than the reaction limits themselves, so that there was always a margin of safety. And within the limits, a nicety of control existed that made nucleonics almost an esoteric branch of chemistry. Cookbook chemistry, practically.

Want deuterium? Recipe: To 1.00813 gms. purest Hydrogen-1 add, slowly and with care, 1.00896 gms. fine-grade neutrons. Cook until well done in a Ditmars-Horst reactor. Yield: 2.01471 gms. rare old deuterium plus some two million million million ergs of raw energy. Now you are cooking with gas!

All you had to do was keep the reaction going at a slow enough rate so that the energy could be bled off, and there was nothing to worry about. Usually. But control of the feebleizer fields still wasn’t perfect, because the fields that enfeebled the reactions and made them easy to control weren’t yet too well understood.

Peter de Hooch turned into Corridor C and kept on running. There was plenty of air still in this corridor, and there was apparently little likelihood of his needing his vac suit. But on the moon nobody responds to an emergency call without a vac suit.

He was troubled about Corridors A and B. The explosion must have been pretty violent to have sealed off two of the four corridors leading from the living quarters to the reaction labs. Two corridors went directly to one of the reactors, two went directly to the second. Two more connected the reactor labs themselves, putting the labs and the living quarters at the corners of an equilateral triangle. (Peter had never been able to figure out why A and B corridors led to Reactor Two, while C and D led to Reactor One. Logically, he thought, it should have been the other way around. Oh, well.)

Going down C meant that he’d have to get to Reactor Two the long way around.

What had the damage been? he asked himself. Had anyone been hurt? Or killed? He pushed the questions out of his mind. There was no point in speculating. He’d have the information soon enough.

He took the cutoff to the left, at a sixty-degree angle to Corridor C, which led him directly to Corridor E, by-passing Reactor One. He noticed as he went by that the operations lamp was out. Nobody was working with Reactor One.

As he pounded on down the empty corridor, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t seen anyone else running with him. There were five other men in the reactor station, and--so far--he had seen no one. He knew where Willows was, but where were Ferguson, Metty, Laynard, and Quillan? He pushed those questions out of his mind, too, for the time being.

A head popped out of the door at the far end of the corridor.

“Guz! Hurry, Guz!”

De Hooch didn’t bother to answer Willows. He was short of breath as it was. He knew, besides, that no answer was expected. He had known Willows for years, and knew how he thought. It was Willows who had first tagged de Hooch with that silly nickname, “Guzzle”. Not because Peter was such a heavy drinker--although he could hold it like a gentleman--but because he had thought “Guzzle” de Hooch was so uproariously funny. “Nobody likes a guzzle as well as de Hooch,” he’d say, with an idiot grin. As a result, everybody called Peter “Guz” now.

The head had vanished back into the control room of Reactor Two. De Hooch kept on running, his breath rasping loudly in the confines of the fishbowl helmet. Running four hundred yards isn’t the easiest thing in the world, even if a man is in good physical condition. There was less weight to contend with, but the mass that had to be pushed along remained the same. The notion that running on Luna was an effortless breeze was one that only Earthhuggers clung to.

He ran into the control room and stopped, panting heavily. “What ... happened?”

Sam Willows’ normally handsome face looked drawn. “Something went wrong. I don’t know what. I was finishing up with Reactor One when I heard the explosion. They are both”--he gestured toward the reactor--”both in there.”

“Still alive?”

“I think so. One of ‘em, anyway. Take a look.”

De Hooch went over to the periscope and put his eyes to the binoculars. He could see two figures in heavy, dull-gray radiation-proof suits. They were lying flat on the floor, and neither was moving. De Hooch said as much.

“The one on the left was moving his arm--just a little,” Willows said. “I’ll swear he was.”

Something in the man’s voice made de Hooch turn his head away from the periscope’s eyepieces. Willows’ face was gray, and a thin film of greasy perspiration reflected the light from the overhead plates. The man was on the verge of panic.

“Calm down, Puss,” de Hooch said gently. “Where’s Quillan and Laynard?”

“They’re in their rooms,” Willows said in a tight voice. “Trapped. The bulkheads have closed ‘em off in A. No air in the corridor. We’ll have to dig ‘em out. I called ‘em both on the phone. They’re all right, but they’re trapped.”

“Did you call Base?”

“Yes. They haven’t got a ship. They sent three moon-cats, though. They ought to be here by morning.”

De Hooch looked up at the chronometer on the wall. Oh one twelve, Greenwich time. “Morning” meant any time between eight and noon; the position of the sun up on the surface had nothing to do with Lunar time. As a matter of fact, there was a full Earth shining at the moment, which meant that it wouldn’t be dawn on the surface for a week yet.

“If the cats from Base get here by noon, we’ll be O.K., won’t we?” de Hooch asked.

“Look at the instruments,” Willows said.

De Hooch ran a practiced eye over the console and swallowed. “What were they running?”

“Mercury 203,” Willows said. “Half-life forty-six point five days. Beta and gamma emitter. Converts to Thallium 203, stable.”

“What did they want with a kilogram of the stuff?”

“Special order. Shipment to Earth for some reason.”

“Have you checked the end-point? She’s building up fast.”

“No. No. I haven’t.” He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue.

“Check it,” said de Hooch. “Do any of the controls work?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to fiddle with them.”

“You start giving them a rundown. I’m going to get into a suit and go pull those two out of there--if they’re still alive.” He opened the locker and took his radiation-proof suit out. He checked it over carefully and began shucking his vac suit.

A few minutes delay in getting to the men in the reactor’s anteroom didn’t matter much. If they hadn’t been killed outright, and were still alive, they would probably live a good deal longer. The shells of the radiation suits didn’t look damaged, and the instruments indicated very little radiation in the room. Whatever it was that had exploded had done most of its damage at the other end of the reactor. Evidently, a fissure had been opened to the surface, forty feet above--a fissure big enough to let all the air out of A and B corridors, and activate the automatic bulkheads to seal off the airless section.

What troubled him was Willows. If he hadn’t known the man so well, de Hooch would have verbally blasted him where he stood.

His reaction to trouble had been typical. De Hooch had already seen Willows in trouble three times, and each time, the reaction had been the same: near panic. Every time, his first thought had been to scream for help rather than to do anything himself. Almost anyone else would have made one call and then climbed into a radiation suit to get Ferguson and Metty out of the anteroom. There was certainly no apparent immediate danger. But all that Willows had done was yell for someone to come and do his thinking and acting for him. He had called Base; he had called de Hooch; he had called Quillan and Laynard. But he hadn’t done anything else.

Now he had to be handled with kid gloves. If de Hooch didn’t act calm, if he didn’t go about things just right, Willows might very likely go over the line into total panic. As long as he had someone to depend on, he’d be all right, and de Hooch didn’t want to lose the only help he had right now.

“Fermium 256,” said Willows in a tight, flat voice.

“What?” de Hooch asked calmly.

“Fermium 256,” Willows repeated. “That’s what the stuff is going to start building towards. Spontaneous fission. Half-life of three hours.” He took a deep breath. “The reactor won’t be able to contain it. We haven’t got that kind of bleed-off control.”

“No,” de Hooch agreed. “I suggest we stop it.”

“The freezer control isn’t functioning,” Willows said. “I guess that’s what they went in there to correct.”

“I doubt it,” de Hooch said carefully. “They wouldn’t have needed suits for that. They must have had something else bothering them. I’d be willing to bet they went in to pull a sample and something went wrong.”

“Why? What makes you think so?”

“If there’d been trouble, they’d have called for someone to stay here at the console. Both of them wouldn’t have gone in if there was any trouble.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He looked visibly relieved. “What do you suppose went wrong?”

“Look at your meters. Four of ‘em aren’t registering.”

Willows looked. “I hadn’t noticed. I thought they were just registering low. You’re right, though. Yeah. You’re right. The surface bleed-off. Hydrogen loss. Blew a valve, is all. Yeah.” He grinned a little. “Must’ve been quite a volcano for a second or two.”

De Hooch grinned back at him. “Yeah. Must’ve. Give me a hand with these clamps.”

Willows began fastening the clamps on the heavy suit. “D’you think Ferguson and Metty are O.K., Guz?” he asked.

De Hooch noticed it was the first time he had used the names of the two men. Now that there was a chance that they were alive, at least in his own mind, he was willing to admit that they were men he knew. Willows didn’t want to think that anyone he knew had done such a terrible thing as die. It hit too close to home.

The man wasn’t thinking. He was willing to grasp at anything that offered him a chance--dream straws. The idea was to keep him busy, keep his mind on trivia, keep him from thinking about what was going on inside that reactor.

He should have known automatically that it was building toward Fermium 256. It was the most logical, easiest, and simplest way for a D-H reactor to go off the deep end.

A Ditmars-Horst reactor took advantage of the fact that any number can be expressed as the sum of powers of two--and the number of nucleons in an atomic nucleus was no exception to that mathematical rule.

Building atoms by adding nucleons wasn’t as simple as putting marbles in a bag because of the energy differential, but the energy derived from the fusion of the elements lighter than Iron 56 could be compensated for by using it to pack the nuclei heavier than that. The trick was to find a chain of reactions that gave the least necessary energy transfer. The method by which the reactions were carried out might have driven a mid-Twentieth Century physicist a trifle ga-ga, but most of the reactions themselves would have been recognizable.

There were several possible reactions which Ferguson and Metty could have used to produce Hg-203, but de Hooch was fairly sure he knew which one it was. The five-branch, double-alpha-addition scheme was the one that was easiest to use--and it was the only one that started the damnable doubling chain reaction, where the nuclear weights went up exponentially under the influence of the peculiar conditions within the reactor. 2-4-8-16-32-64-128-256 ... Hydrogen 2 and Helium 4 were stable. So were Oxygen 16 and Sulfur 32. The reaction encountered a sticky spot at Beryllium 8, which is highly unstable, with a half life of ten to the minus sixteenth seconds, spontaneously fissioning back into two Helium 4 nuclei. Past Sulfur 32, there was a lot of positron emission as the nuclei fought to increase the number of neutrons to maintain a stable balance. Germanium 64 is not at all stable, and neither is Neodymium 128, but the instability can be corrected by positive beta emission. When two nuclei of the resulting Xenon 128 are forced together, the positron emission begins long before the coalescence is complete, resulting in Fermium 256.

But not even a Ditmars-Horst reactor can stand the next step, because matter itself won’t stand it--not even in a D-H reactor. The trouble is that a D-H reactor tries. Mathematically, it was assumed that the resulting nucleus did exist--for an infinitesimal instant of time. Literally, mathematically, infinitesimal--so close to zero that it would be utterly impossible to measure it. Someone had dubbed the hypothetical stuff Instantanium 512.

Whether Instantanium 512 had any real existence is an argument for philosophers only. The results, in any case, were catastrophic. The whole conglomeration came apart in a grand splatter of neutrons, protons, negatrons, positrons, electrons, neutrinos--a whole slew of Greek-lettered mesons of various charges and masses, and a fine collection of strange and ultrastrange particles. Energy? Just oodles and gobs.

Peter de Hooch had heard about the results. He had no desire to experience them first hand. Fortunately, the reaction that led up to them took time. It could be stopped at any time up to the Fm-256 stage. According to the instruments, that wouldn’t be for another six hours yet, so there was nothing at all to worry about. Even after that it could be stopped, provided one had a way to get rid of the violently fissioning fermium.

“Connections O.K.?” Willows asked. His voice came over the earphones inside the ponderous helmet of the radiation suit.

“Fine,” said de Hooch. He adjusted the double periscope so that his vision was clear. “Perfect.”

He tested the controls, moving his arms and legs to see if the suit responded. The suit was so heavy that, without powered joints, controlled by servomechanisms, he would have been unable to move, even under Lunar gravity. With the power on, though, it was no harder than walking underwater in a diving suit. “All’s well, Puss,” he said.

“I’ll keep an eye on you,” said Willows.

“Fine. Well, here goes Colossus de Hooch.” He began walking toward the door that led into the corridor which connected the reactor anteroom to the control room.

It took time to drag the two inert figures out of the anteroom. All de Hooch could do was grab them under the armpits, apply power, and drag them out. He went out the same way he had come in, traversing the separate chambers in reverse order. First came the decontamination chamber, where the radioactive dust that might have settled on the suits was sluiced off by the detergent sprays. When the radiation detectors registered low enough, de Hooch dragged Ferguson into the outer chamber, then went back and got Metty and put him through the same process. Then he dragged them on into the control room so that Willows could get them out of the heavy suits.


“Can you help me, Guz?” Willows asked. It was obvious that he didn’t want to open the suits. He didn’t want to see what might be inside. De Hooch helped him.

They were both alive, but unconscious. Bones had been broken, and Metty appeared to be suffering from concussion. They were badly damaged, but they’d live.

De Hooch and Willows made two trips down E and C corridors, carrying the men on a stretcher, to get them in bed. De Hooch splinted the broken bones as best he could and gave each of them a shot of narcodyne. He had to do the medical work because Quillan, the medic, was trapped in Corridor A. He called Quillan on the phone to tell him what had happened. He described the signs and symptoms of the victims as best he could, and then did what Quillan told him to do.

“They ought to be all right,” Quillan said. “With that dope in them, they’ll be out cold for the next twelve hours, and by that time, the boys from Base will be here. Just leave ‘em alone and don’t move ‘em any more.”

“Right. I’ll call you back later. Right now, Puss and I are going to see what’s wrong with the control linkages on Number Two.”

“Right. By-o.”

De Hooch and Willows walked back to the control room of Number Two Reactor in silence.

Once inside the control room, de Hooch said: “How are those control circuits?” Willows was supposed to have been checking them while he had been dragging Ferguson and Metty out of the antechamber.

“Well, I ... I’m not sure. I’ll show you what I’ve found so far, Guz. You ought to take a look at them. I ... I’d like you to take a look-see. I think”--he gestured toward the console--”I think they’re all right except for the freezer vernier and the pressure release control.”

He doesn’t trust his own work, de Hooch thought. Well, that’s all right. Neither do I.

Painstakingly, the two of them went over the checking circuits. Willows was right. The freezer and pressure controls were inoperable.

“Damn,” said de Hooch. “Double damn.”

“They’re probably both stuck at the firewall,” Willows said.

“Sure. Where else? I’ll have to go in there and unstick ‘em. Help me get back into that two-legged tank again.” He wished he knew more about what Ferguson and Metty had been doing. He wished he knew why the two men had gone into the anteroom in the first place. He wished a lot of things, but wishing was a useless pastime at this stage of the game.

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