As he spoke, Mike's finger moved nearer a knob-headed bolt that seemed to be one of the two holding the glass device to its mounting board, and an inch and a half spark spat forth and interrupted the dissertation with a loud "Yipe!"
"Confusion say," Ishie continued as Mike stuck his finger in his mouth, "he who point finger of suspicion should be careful of lurking dragons!
"Anyhow, that's what it does. There are two thousand separate little grids, each fed by its capillary jet, and each grid provides about ninety volts."
Tombu took the opportunity to inquire, "Have you got that RF field-phase generator under control yet?" He pointed to still another section of the chassis.
"Oh, yes." The physicist nodded. "See, I have provided a feedback circuit to co-ordinate the pick-up signal with the three-phase RF output. The control must be precise. Can't have it skipping around or we don't get a good alignment."
There was a gurgling churkle from the innocent-looking maze as the "borrowed" aerator pump from the FARM supplies began returning the condensate back to the boiler.
Major Steve Elbertson stood on the magnetic stat-walk of the south polar loading lock, gazing along the anchor tube to Project Hot Rod five miles away.
"There are no experts in the ability to maneuver properly in free fall," he told himself, quieting his dissatisfaction with his own self-conscious efforts at maintaining the military dignity of the United Nations Security Forces in a medium in which a man inevitably lost the stances that to him connotated that dignity.
Awkwardly, he attached the ten-pound electric device affectionately known to spacemen as the scuttlebug, to the flat ribbon-cable that would both power and guide him to Hot Rod.
As the wheels of the scuttlebug clipped over the ribbon-cable, one above and two below, and made contact with the two electrically conductive surfaces, he saw the warning light change from green to red, indicating that the ribbon was now in use, and that no one else should use it until he had arrived at the far end.
Seeing that the safety light was now in his favor, he swung his legs over the seat--a T-bar at the bottom of the rod which swung down from the drive mechanism--grasped the rod, and pulled the starting trigger.
The accelerative force of one gee, the maximum of which the scuttlebug was capable, provided quite a jolt, but settled down very quickly to almost zero as he picked up speed and reached the maximum of one hundred twenty miles per hour.
A very undignified method of travel, he thought. Yet for all that, the scuttlebugs were light and efficient, and reduced transit time between outlying projects and the big wheel to a very reasonable time, compared to that which it would take for a man to jump the distance under his own power--and, he thought, without wasting the precious mass that rockets would have required.
The low voltage power supplied by the two flat sides of the ribbon was insufficient to have provided lethal contact, even if the person were there without the insulation of a spacesuit around him, a very unlikely occurrence. Furthermore, the structure of the cable, with the flat, flexible insulation between its two conductive surfaces, made it practically impossible to short it out; and the flanged wheels of the scuttlebug clipped over it in such a fashion that, once locked, it was thought to be impossible that they could lose their grip without being unlocked.
As Steve gained speed along the ribbon, "his" Project Hot Rod was in view before him--appearing to be a half moon which looked larger than the real moon in the background behind it; and seeming to stand in the vastness of space at a distance from the far end of the long anchor tube, a narrow band of bright green glowing near its terminator line.
From the rounded half of the moon, extending sunward, four bright, narrow traceries seemed to outline a nose that ended in a pale, globular tracery at its tip, pointing to the sun.
The narrow traceries were in actuality four anchor tubes, similar to the one beside which he rode; and mounted in their tip was the directing mirror that would aim Hot Rod's beam of energy.
Project Hot Rod was actually a giant balloon eight thousand feet in diameter, one-half "silvered" with a greenish reflective surface inside that reflected only that light that could be utilized by the ruby rods at its long focal center; and that absorbed the remainder of the incident solar radiation, dumping it through to its black outside surface, and on into the vastness of space. This half of the big balloon was the spherical collector mirror, facing, through the clear plastic of its other half, the solar disk.
Well inside the balloon, at the tip of the ruby barrel that was its heart, were located the boiler tubes that activated the self-centering inertial orientation servos which must remain operational at all times. If the big mirror were ever to present its blackened rear surface to the sun for more than a few minutes, the rise in temperature would totally destroy the entire project. Therefore, these servos had been designed as the ultimate in fail-safe, fool-proof control to maintain the orientation of the mirror always within one tenth of one degree of the center of Sol.
Their action was simplicity itself. The black boiler tubes were shielded in such a way that so long as the aim was dead center on the sun they received no energy; but let the orientation shift by a fraction of a degree, and one of these blackened surfaces would begin to receive reflected energy from the mirror behind it; the liquid nitrogen within would boil, and escape under pressure through a jet in such manner as to re-orient the position to the center of the tracking alignment.
Since the nitrogen gas escaped into the balloon, the automatic pressure regulator designed to maintain pressure within the balloon would extract an equal quantity of gas, put it back through the cooling system on the back side of the mirror, and return it as liquid to the boiler.
These jets were so carefully and precisely balanced that there was virtually no "hunting" in the system.
The balloon itself was attached to its anchor tube by a one hundred meter cable that gave free play to these orientation servos. The anchor point was the exact center of the black outside surface of the mirror-half of the balloon; and beside that anchor point was the air lock to the control center, to which Steve was now going.
From the control room, a column extended up through the axis of the balloon for thirty-five hundred feet--and most of the surface of this column was covered with the new type, high power ruby rods, thirty feet long and one-half inch in diameter, mounted in tubular trays of reflective material which took up sufficient space to make each rod occupy two inches of the circumference of the tube on which it was mounted.
These ruby rods were the heart of the power system, converting the random wave fronts of noncoherent light received from the mirror into a tremendous beam of coherent infrared energy which could be bundled in such a pattern as to reach Earth's surface in a focal point adjustable from here to be something between twenty-two feet in diameter to approximately one mile in diameter.
The banks of rods were so arranged that each of the one hundred sections comprising the three thousand feet of receptive surface at the focus of the mirror formed a concentric circle of energy beams; each circle becoming progressively smaller in diameter, so that the energy combined into one hundred concentric circles, one within the other, as it left the rods; but these circles were capable of the necessary focusing that could bring them all together into a single small point near Earth's surface.
The beam leaving the rods represented three hundred seventy-five million watts of energy, tightly packaged for delivery to Earth. But this was only a small fraction of the solar energy arriving at the big mirror.
The remainder, the loss, must be dumped by the black surface at the back; and to account for the loss in the rods themselves, to prevent their instantaneous slagging into useless globules of aluminum oxide, their excess loss energy must also be dumped.
A cooling bath of liquid nitrogen therefore circulated over each rod and brought the excess heat to the rear of the big lens, where it, too, could be dumped into the blackness of space beyond.
For all its size and complexity, Hot Rod was only a trifle over six per cent efficient; but that six per cent of efficiency arriving on Earth would be highly welcome to supplement the power sources that statistics said were being rapidly depleted.
The spherical shape of the mirror itself, one of the easiest possible structures to erect in space, had dictated the placement of the rods through its center since there was no single focal point for the entire mirror surface.
But it had also added a complication. From this position, the rods could have been designed to fire either straight forward or straight back.
However, due to the hollow nature of the thirty-five hundred foot laser barrel; the necessity for access to the rods from inside that barrel; and the placement of the control booth at its outside end, the firing could only be forward, straight towards the sun on which the mirror was focused.
But to be useful, the beam must be able to track an ever-moving target.
This problem had been solved by one of the largest mirror surfaces that man had ever created--flat to a quarter of a wave-length of light, and two hundred fifty feet in diameter, the beam director, from this distance looking as though it were a carelessly tossed looking-glass from milady's handbag, anchored one diameter forward of the big power balloon.
For all its size, this director mirror had very little mass. Originally it had been planned to be made of glass in much the same manner as Palomar's 200-inch eye. But this plan had been rejected on the basis of the weight involved.
Instead, its structure was a rigid honeycomb of plastic; surfaced by a layer of fluorocarbon plastic which had been brought to its final polish in space, and then carefully aluminized to provide a highly reflective, extremely flat surface.
This mirror was also cooled by the liquid nitrogen supplied from the back side of the big mirror. Necessarily so, since even its best reflectivity still absorbed a sufficient portion of the energy from the beam it deflected to have rapidly ruined it if it were not properly cooled.
The several tons of ruby rods in the barrel, with their clear sapphire coatings, were far more valuable than any gems of any monarch that had ever lived on Earth. Synthetic though they were, Steve Elbertson, the project's military commander, knew they had been shipped here at fantastic cost and were expected to pay for themselves many thousands of times over in energy delivered.
As yet, the project had had no specific target; nor had it been fully operational as of midnight yesterday.
But this "morning" for the first time the terrific energy of the laser beam would be brought to bear on the Greenland ice cap--three hundred seventy-five million watts of infrared energy adjusted to a needle-point expected to be twenty-two feet in diameter at Earth's surface, delivering one million watts per square foot, that should put a hole a good way through the several thousand feet of glacier there in its fifteen minutes of operation, possibly even exposing the bare rock beneath, and certainly releasing a mighty cloud of steam.
Focused to this needle sharpness, the rate of energy delivery was many orders of magnitude higher than that delivered by man's largest nuclear weapons only a few yards from ground zero.
Today's test was primarily scheduled as a test of control in aiming and energy concentration. Careful co-ordination of the project by ground control was vital, so that no misalignment of the beam could possibly bring it to bear on any civilized portion of Earth's surface. For, fantastic as this Project Hot Rod might be as a source of power for Earth, Major Elbertson knew that it was also the most dangerous weapon that man had ever devised.
Therefore, the scientists were never alone in the control booth, despite the mile-long security records of each. Therefore, he and his men were in absolute control of the men who controlled the laser.
Therefore, too, Steve told himself, as the time came when there would be a question of command between himself and Captain Nails Andersen, science advisor to the U.N. and commander of Space Lab One, his own secret orders were that he was to take command--and the rank that would give him that command was already bestowed, ready for activation.
Nails Andersen, Steve reminded himself with amusement, had originated the laser project; had fought it through against the advice of more cautious souls; and had, through that project, attained command of the space lab, and the rank that made that command possible, all in the name of civilian science.
But not command of the laser project, Steve told himself.
Not of the most dangerous military weapon ever devised--dangerous and military for all that it was a civilian project, developed on the excuse that it would power Earth, which was rapidly eating itself out of its power sources.
Not in command of that, Steve told himself. Nobody but a military man could properly protect--and if necessary, properly use--such power.
Those were his secret orders; and he had the papers--and the authority from Earth--to back him up. And orders to shoot to kill without hesitation if those orders were questioned.
Meantime, today's peacetime experiment would bring forcibly to the attention of Earth both the power for good and the power for destruction of the laser which he commanded.
Project Hot Rod was manned twenty-four hours a "day." The new shift of scientists--the ones who would turn on the powerful--or deadly--beam, would come aboard in about half an hour. The men who had put the finishing touches on the project during the past shift would remain for another hour. His own crew of Security men shifted with the scientists--but he, himself, shifted at will.
The immensity around him went unheeded as Steve Elbertson, eyes on Project Hot Rod, savored the power of the beam that could control Earth.
In the observatory, Perk Kimball and his assistant Jerry Wallace were having coffee as the various electronic adjuncts to the instruments of the observatory warmed up. Transistors and other solid state components that made up the majority of the electronic equipment in the observatory required no "warm up" in the sense that the older electron tubes had--but when used in critical equipment, they were temperature sensitive, and he allowed for time to reach a stable operating temperature. Then, too, the older electron tubes had not been entirely replaced. Many of them were still in faithful service.
The day would not be spent in the observation which was their main job there, because calibration of many of the instruments remained to be done, and the observatory was behind schedule, having had a good deal of its time taken up in the sightings required by the communications lab and Project Hot Rod.
Both of the astronomers were heartily sick of spending so much of their observational time with recalcitrant equipment; and in making observations of the globe from which they had come. After all, why should an astronomer be interested in Earth? Though admittedly this was the first observatory in man's entire history that had had the opportunity for such a careful scrutiny.
"This flare business, that our captive Indian was predicting," Jerry asked. "Think there's anything to it? Or am I just learning rumors about my profession from lay sources?"
"A rather presumptuous prediction, though he may be right." Perk's clipped tone was partly English, partly the hauteur of the professional. To him, solar phenomena were strictly sourced on the sun, and if they were to be understood at all, it would be in reference to the internal dynamics of the sun itself.
"The torroidal magnetic fields dividing the slowly rotating polar regions from the more rapid rotation near the solar equator," he said slowly, rather pedantically, but as though talking to himself, "should have far more effective control over solar phenomena than the periodic unbalance created by the off-center gravitic fields when the inner planets bunch on the same side of their solar orbits.
"To imply otherwise would be rather like saying that the grain of sand is responsible for the tides.
"Yet," he added honestly, "the records compiled by some of the communications interests that used to be greatly disturbed by the solar flares' influence on radio communications, seem to indicate that there is a connection. So there is the possibility, however remote, that our captive redskin might be right; or rather, that there is a force involved that makes the two coincidental."
But even as he talked, an unnoticed needle on the board began an unusual, wiggling dance, far different from its ordinary, slow averaging reactions. Twice, without being noticed, it swung rapidly towards the red line on its meter face; and then on its third approach the radiation counter swung over the red line and triggered an alarm.
From only one source in their environment could they expect that level of X-ray intensity. Without so much as a pause for thought, as the alarm screamed, barely glancing at the counter, Perk reached for the intercom switch and intoned the chant that man had learned was the great emergency of space: "Flare, flare, flare--take cover."
Simultaneously, he flipped three switches putting the observatory, the only completely unshielded area within the satellite, on automatic, to record as much as it could of the progress of the solar flare with its incomplete equipment, while he and Jerry dove through the open air lock down the central well to the emergency shield room in the center of the hub.
It was a poor system, Perk thought, that hadn't devised sufficient shielding for the observatory so that they could watch this phenomenon more directly. "We'll have to work on that problem," he told himself and since his recommendations would carry much weight after this tour of duty, he could be sure that any such system that he could devise would be instrumented.
Major Steve Elbertson, caught in mid-run between the lab and Project Hot Rod, resisted the temptation to reverse the scuttlebug on the line and pull himself to a fast stop, as the flare warning from the observatory came to him over the emergency circuit of his suit, followed by Bessie's clipped official voice saying: "A flare is in progress. Any personnel outside the ship should get in as rapidly as possible. Personnel in the rim have seven minutes in which to secure their posts and report to the flare-shield area in the hub. Spin deceleration will take effect in three minutes; and we are counting on my mark towards deceleration. Mark, three minutes."
The Security officer squeezed the trigger of the "bug" tighter in a vain effort to force it and himself forward at a higher speed.
The lesser shielding of the Hot Rod control room would not provide a sufficient safety factor even for the X rays that he knew were already around him; but he must supervise the security of the shutdown; and he could only be very thankful that he was already nearly there and would not have to make the entire round trip under emergency conditions.
The scuttlebug automatically reversed and began slowing for the end of its run--tripped by a block signal set in the ribbon cable. As it came to a stop at the end of the long anchor tube, Steve dismounted and kicked over the short remaining distance, which was spanned only by a slack cable to permit the inertial orientation servos of Hot Rod unhindered freedom to maintain their constant tracking of the solar disk.
Passing through the air lock of the control room, he reflected that his exposure would probably be sufficient to give a touch of nausea in the first half hour.
Inside Hot Rod control there was little excitement. The equipment was being turned off in the standard approved safety procedures necessary to turn control over to the laser communication beam which would put the project under Earth control at Thule Base, Greenland, until the emergency was over.
This separate, low-power control beam, focused on Thule Base nearly eighty miles away from the main focus of Hot Rod on its initial target, carried all of the communications and telemetry necessary for the close co-ordination between Thule and the project.
As Elbertson entered, the Hot Rod communications officer was switching each of the control panels in turn to Earth control, while Dr. Benjamin Koblensky, project chief, stood directly behind him, supervising the process. Elbertson took up his post beside Dr. Koblensky, replacing the Security aide who had had the past shift. "Suit up," he said to the man briefly.
As the communications officer completed the turnover, and the other five scientists in the lab left their posts to suit up, the com officer glanced up, received a nod from Dr. Koblensky, and said into his microphone "All circuits have now been placed in telemetry security operation. On my mark it will be five seconds to control abandonment. Mark," he said after another nod from Dr. Koblensky. "Four, three, two, one, release."
His hand on the master switch, he waited for the green light above it to assure him that the communications lag had been overcome, and as the green light came on, pushed the switch and rose from the console.
Major Elbertson stepped behind him, scanned the switches, inserted his key into the Security lock, and turned it with a final snap, forcing a bar home through the handles of all of the switches to prevent their unauthorized operation by anyone until the official Security key should again release them. In the meantime, no function could be initiated within the laser system by anyone other than the Security control officer at Thule Base on Earth.
Hot Rod was secured, and its crew were taking turns at the lock to make the life-saving run back to the flare-shield area in the hub of Lab One.
Last man out, three minutes after the original alarm, Steve glanced carefully around his beloved control booth, entered the now-empty air lock, and reaching the outside vacuum dove fast and hard toward the anchor terminal and the scuttlebug that would take him swiftly to the big wheel and its comparative safety.
In the gymnasium that served under emergency conditions as the flare-shield area of the hub, long since dubbed the "morgue," the circular nets of hammocks that made it possible to pack six hundred personnel into an area with a thirty-two foot diameter and a forty-five foot length, were lowered. They would hardly be packed this time, since less than one-third of the complement were yet aboard.
Even so, each person aboard had his assigned hammock space, two and a half feet wide; two and a half feet below the hammock above; and seven feet long; and each made his way toward his assigned slot.
At one end of the morgue was the area where the cages of animals from Dr. Lavalle's labs were being stored on their assigned flare-shield shelves; and where Dr. Millie Williams was supervising the arrangements of the trays and vats of plants that must be protected as thoroughly as the humans.
At the other end of the morgue, the medics were setting up their emergency treatment area, while nearby the culinary crew pulled out and put in operating condition the emergency feeding equipment.
The big wheel's soft, susurrus lullaby had already changed to a muted background roar as her huge pumps drew the shielding waters of the rim into the great tanks that gave the hub twenty-four feet of shielding from the expected storm of protons that would soon be raging in the vacuum outside.
The ship was withdrawing the hydraulic mass from its rim much as a person in shock draws body fluids in from the outer limbs to the central body cavities. The analogy was apt, for until danger passed, the lab was knocked out, only its automatic functions proceeding as normal, while its consciousness hovered in interiorized, self-protective withdrawal.
On the panel before Bessie the computer's projection of expected events showed the wave-front of protons approaching the orbit of Venus, and on the numerical panel directly below this display the negative count of minutes continued to march before her as the wave-front approached at half the speed of light.
The expected diminishment of X rays had not yet occurred. Normally, there would be a space of time between their diminishment and the arrival of the first wave of protons; but so far it had not happened.
Six minutes had passed, and the arriving personnel of Project Hot Rod came in through the locks from the loading platform, diving through the central tunnel over Bessie's head and on to the shielded tank beyond.
Seven minutes; and from Biology lab came an excited voice. "I need some help! I've lost a rabbit. I came back for the one I'd been inoculating but he got away from me, and I can't corner him in this no-gravity!"
Bessie wasn't sure what to say, but Captain Andersen spoke into his intercom. "Dr. Lavalle," he said in a low voice, but with the force of command, "ninety per cent of your shielding has already been withdrawn. Abandon the rabbit and report immediately to the hub!"
The pumps were still laboring to bring in the last nine per cent of the water that would be brought. The remaining one per cent of the normal hydraulic mass of the rim had been diverted to a very small-diameter tube at the extreme inner portion of the rim, and was now being driven through this tube at frantically higher velocities to compensate for the removal of the major mass, and to maintain a small percentage of the original spin, so that the hub would not be totally in free fall, though the pseudo-gravity of centrifugal force had already fallen to a mere shadow of a shadow of itself, and some of the personnel were feeling the combined squeamishness of the Coriolis effect near the center of the ship, and the lessening of the gravity, pseudo though it had been, that they had had with them in the rim.
As the last tardy technician arrived, the medics were already selecting out the nearly ten per cent of the personnel who had been exposed to abnormally dangerous quantities of radiation during the withdrawal procedure, which included, of course, all the personnel that had been aboard Project Hot Rod at the time of the flare.
Even as the medics went about injecting carefully controlled dosages of sulph-hydral anti-radiation drugs, the beginnings of nausea were evident among those who had been overexposed. However, only the dosimeters could be relied on to determine whether the nausea was more from the effects of radiation; the effects of the near-free-fall and Coriolis experienced in the hub; or perhaps some of it was psychosomatic, and had no real basis other than the fear engendered by emergency conditions.
Major Steve Elbertson was already in such violent throes of nausea that his attending medic was having difficulty reading his dosimeter as he made use of the plastic bag attached to his hammock; and he was obviously, for the moment at least, one of the least dignified of the persons on board.