Displays of the various labs in the rim moved restlessly across most of the thirty-six channels of the computer's video displays, as Bessie scanned about, searching for dangerously loose equipment or personnel that might somehow have been left behind.
In the Biology lab, the white rabbit that had escaped was frantically struggling in the near-zero centrifugal field with literally huge bounds, seeking some haven wherein his disturbed senses might feel more at home, and eventually finding a place in an overturned wastebasket wedged between a chair and a desk, both suction-cupped to the floor. Frightened and alone, with only his nose poking out of the burrow beneath the trash of the wastebasket, he blinked back at the silent camera through which Bessie observed him, and elicited from her a murmur of pity.
Seven minutes and forty-five seconds. The digital readout at the bottom of Bessie's console showed the computer's prediction of fifteen seconds remaining until the expected flood of protons began to arrive from the sun.
As radiation monitors began to pick up the actual arrival of the wave front, the picture on her console changed to display a new wave front, only fractionally in advance of the one that the computer had been displaying as a prediction.
The storm of space had broken.
Captain Andersen's voice came across the small area of the bridge that separated them. "Check the rosters, please. Are all personnel secured?"
Bessie glanced at the thirty-two minor display panels, checking visually, even as her fingers fed the question to the computer.
The display of the labs, now that the rabbit was settled into place, showed no dangerously loose equipment other than a few minor items of insufficient mass to present a hazard, and no personnel, she noted, as the Cow displayed a final check-set of figures, indicating that all personnel were at their assigned, protected stations in the morgue, in the engineering quarters, and on the bridge.
"All secure," she told the captain. "Evacuation is complete."
"Well handled," he said to her, then over the intercom: "This is your captain. Our evacuation to the flare-shield area is complete. The ship and personnel are secured for emergency conditions, and were secured well within the time available. May I congratulate you.
"The proton storm is now raging outside. You will be confined to your posts in the shield area for somewhere between sixteen and forty-eight hours.
"As soon as it is possible to predict the time limit more accurately, the information will be given to you."
As he switched out of the ship's annunciator system, Captain Nails Andersen leaned back in his chair and stretched in relief, closing his eyes and running briefly over the details of the evacuation.
When he opened them again, he found a pinch bottle of coffee at his elbow, and tasting it, found it sugared and creamed to his preference. His eyes went across the bridge to the computer console, and lingered a moment on the slender, dark figure there.
Amazing, he thought. The dossier, the personal history, her own and all the others aboard, he had studied carefully before making a selection of the people who would be in his command for this time. Not that the decision had been totally his, but his influence had counted heavily.
This one he had almost missed. Only by asking for an extra survey of information had he caught that bit about the riot at Moscow University that had raged around her ears, apparently without touching or being influenced by or influencing her own quiet program.
That they didn't think alike was evident. That this was a competent sociologist, and not just a computer technician had not at first been evident. But Nails was well pleased with his decision in the selection of this particular unit of his command.
Things would go well in her presence, he felt. Details he might have struggled with would iron out or disappear, and scarcely come to his attention at all.
Very competent, he thought. And attractive, too.
In the engineering compartment, Mike was adjusting the power output from the pile ten miles away, down from the full emergency power that had been required to pump the more than five hundred thousand cubic feet of water from the rim to the hub in seven minutes, to a level more in keeping with the moderate requirements of the lab as it waited out the storm.
As he threw the last switch, he became aware of a soft scuffling sound behind him, and turned to see tiny Dr. Y Chi Tung, single-handedly manhandling through the double bulkhead the bulky magnetic resonance device on which he had been working when the flare alarm sounded, and having the utmost difficulty even though the near free-fall conditions made his problem package next to weightless.
The monkeylike form of the erudite physicist, dwarfed by the big chassis, gave the appearance of a small boy trying to hide an outsize treasure; but the nonchalant humor that normally poked constant fun at both his profession as a physicist and the traditions of his Chinese ancestors, was lacking.
Dr. Ishie was both breathless and worried.
"Mike," he gasped. "I was afraid to leave it, unshielded. It might pick up some residual activity. Radiation, that is. From those hydrogen hordes outside." He let the object rest for a moment, mopping his head while he talked. "Can you hide it in here? I'm not really anxious to have Budget Control know where some of this stuff went--even though I have honorable intentions of returning the components later--and the good captain down there on the bridge might not consider its shielding important, either, if he knew I'd sabotaged his beautiful evacuation plan to bring my pet along!" The tone of Ishie's voice indicated his uncertainty as to Mike's reception.
The idea of Dr. Y Chi Tung worrying about any components he might have "requisitioned" seemed almost irreverent to Mike. Budget Control would gladly have given that eminent physicist a good half of the entire space station, if he had expressed his needs through the proper channels--as a matter of fact, anything on board that wasn't actually essential to the lives of those on the satellite.
But Ishie seemed genuinely unaware of his true status, and the high regard in which he was held. Besides, Mike suspected in him a constitutional inability to deal through channels.
Recognizing the true sensitivity that underlay Ishie's constant humor and ridicule of himself, Mike kept himself from laughing aloud at the stealth of the man who could have commanded the assistance of the captain himself in shielding whatever he thought it necessary to shield.
Instead, he carefully kept his face solemn while he commented: "It ought to fit in that rack over there." He pointed to a group of half-filled racks. "We can slip a fake panel on it. Nobody will be able to tell it from any of the other control circuits."
Ishie heaved a deep sigh of relief and grinned his normal grin. "Confusion say," he declared, "that ninety-six pound weakling who struggle down shaft with six hundred pound object, even in free fall, should have stood in bed."
It took the two of them the better part of half an hour to get the unit into place; to disguise its presence; and to make proper power connections. Ishie had objected at first to connecting it up, and Mike explained his insistence by saying that "If it looks like something that works, nobody will look at it twice. But if it looks like something dead, one of my boys is apt to take it apart to see what it's supposed to be doing." He didn't mention his real reason--a heady desire to run a few tests on the instrument himself.
The job done, the two sat back on their heels, admiring their handiwork like bad boys.
"Coffee?" asked Mike.
"Snarl. Honorable ancestor Confusion doesn't even need to tell me what to do now. My toy is safe. I am going to bed. I have worked without stopping for two days and now the flare has stopped me.
"Confusion decide to relent. He tell me now: 'He who drive self like slave for forty-eight hours is nuts and should be sent to bed.' I hope," he added, "that the hammocks are soft; but I don't think I shall notice. I know just where to go for I checked in once to fool the Sacred Cow before I went to get my beautiful. Now I go back again."
And without so much as a thank-you, he staggered out, grasping for hand-holds to guide himself in a most unspacemanlike manner.
Mike craftily sat back, still on his heels beside the object, and watched until Ishie had disappeared, and then turned his full interest to the playtoy that fortune had placed in his shop.
Without hesitation he removed the false front they had so carefully put in place. He still had a long tour of duty ahead, and it was very unlikely that he would be interrupted, or, if interrupted, that anyone would question the object on which he worked. It would be assumed that this was just another piece of equipment normally under his care.
Carefully he looked over the circuits, checking in his mind the function of each. Then he went to his racks and began selecting test equipment designed to fit in the empty racks around it. Oscilloscope, signal generator, volt meters and such soon formed a bank around the original piece of equipment, in positions of maximum access.
Gingerly he began applying power to the individual circuits, checking carefully his understanding of each component.
The magnetic field effect, Ishie had explained; but this three-phase RF generator--that puzzled him for a while.
Then he remembered some theory. Brute strength alone would not cause the protons to tip. Much as a top, spinning off-center on its point, will swing slowly around that point instead of tipping over, the spinning protons in the magnetic field would precess, but would not tip and line up without the application of a rotating secondary magnetic field at radio frequencies which would make the feat of lining them up easy.
There, then, were two of the components that Ishie had built into his device. A strong magnetic field supplied by the magnaswedge coils--stolen magnaswedge coils if you please--and a rotating RF field supplied by the generator below the chassis.
But this third effect? The DC electric field? That one was new to him.
In his mind he pictured the tiny gyroscopes all brought into alignment by the interplay of magnetic forces; and around each proton the tiny, planetary electrons.
Yet it was very well to think of the proton nucleus of the hydrogen atom as a simple top, he reminded himself; but they were more complex than that. Each orbiting electron must also contribute something to the effect.
At that point, Mike remembered, the electron itself would be spinning, a lighter-weight gyroscope, much as Earth has a lighter weight than the Sun. The electron, too, had a magnetic field; more powerful than the proton's field because of its higher rate of spin, despite its lighter mass. The electron could also be lined up.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Mike remembered having read of another effect. The electron's resonance. Electron para-magnetic resonance.
It, too, could be controlled by radio frequencies in a magnetic field--but the frequencies were different, far up in the microwave region; about three centimeters as Mike recalled--and he went back to his supply cabinet to get another piece of equipment, a spare klystron that actually belonged to the radar department but that was "stored" in his shop.
At these frequencies, the three centimeter band of the electromagnetic spectrum, energy does not flow on wires as it does in the lower frequency regions. Here plumbing is required. But Mike, amongst other things, was an expert RF plumber.
Even experts take time to set up klystrons, and it was three hours later before Mike was ready with the additional piece of haywire equipment which carefully piped RF energy into the plastic block.
This refinement by itself had been done before; but some of the others that Mike applied during his investigation probably hadn't--at least not to any such tortured piece of plastic as now existed between the pole faces of the device.
To have produced the complete alignment of both the protons and the electrons within a mass might have been attempted before. To have applied an electrostatic field in addition to this had perhaps been attempted before. To have done all three, at the same time to the same piece of plastic, and then to have added the additional tortures that Mike thought up as he went along, was perhaps a chance combination, repeatable once in a million tries, one of those experimental accidents that sometimes provide more insight into the nature of matter than all of the careful research devised by multi-million-dollar-powered teams of classical researchers.
When the contraption was in full operation, he simply sat on his heels and watched, studying out in his mind the circuits and their effects.
The interruption of the magnetic resonance by the electrostatic field--by the DC--with the RF plumbing--twisted by--each time the concept came towards the surface, it sank back as he tried to pull it into consciousness.
Churkling to itself, the device continued applying its alternate fields and warps and strains.
"It's a Confusor out of Confusion by Ishie, who is probably as great a creator of Confusion as you could ask," Mike told himself, forgetting his own part in the matter, watching intently, waiting for the concept to come clear in his mind.
Presently he went over to his console, to his pads of paper and pencils, and began sketching rapidly, drawing the interlocking and repulsing fields, the alignments, mathing out the stresses--in an attempt to visualize just what it was that the Confusor would now be doing....
In the Confusor itself, a tiny chunk of plastic, four by four inches square and one-half inch thick, resting in the middle of the machine between the carefully aligned pole-faces of the magnet, was subjected to the cumulatively devised stresses, a weird distortion of its own stresses and of the inertia that was its existence.
Each proton and electron within the plastic felt an urge to be where it wasn't--felt a pseudo-memory, imposed by the outside stresses, of having been traveling at a high velocity towards the north star, on which the machine chanced to be oriented; felt the new inertia of that velocity....
Each proton and electron fitted itself more snugly against the north pole face and pushed with the entire force of its newly-imposed inertial pattern.
Forty pounds to the square inch six hundred forty pounds over the surface of the block, the plastic did its best to assume the motion that the warped laws of its existence said that it already had.
It was only one times ten to the minus five of a gravity that the four by four by half inch piece of carefully machined plastic presented to the sixty-four million pound mass of Space Lab One.
But the force was presented almost exactly along the north-south axis of the hub of the ship, and in space a thrust is cumulative and momentum derives per second per second.
The Confusor churkled quietly as the piece of plastic exerted its tiny mass in a six hundred forty pound attempt to take off towards the north star. And, since the piece itself was rigidly mounted to its frame, and the frame to the ship, the giant bulk of five million cubic feet of water, thirty-two million pounds of mass; and the matching mass-bulk of the ship itself, responded to the full mosquito-sized strength of the six hundred forty pound thrust, and was moved--a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a centimeter in the first second; a fraction of a fraction in the second; a fraction....
On the bridge, the com officer had completed transmitting the captain's detailed report of the evacuation to the hub-shield area caused by the solar flare.
On another line, under Bessie's ministrations, the computer was feeding the data obtained by the incomplete equipment in the observatory in its automatic operation.
The captain himself was finishing a plastic-bottle of coffee, while he wrote up his log.
It was exactly nine minutes since the Confusor had come into full operation.
The fractions of fractions of centimeters had added on the square of the number of seconds; and the sixty-four million pounds of mass of Space Lab One has moved over thirteen meters.
Trailing the wheel ten miles off, was the atomic pile, directly attached to its anchor tube.
Tightening, each with a whanging snap too tiny to be remarked within the mass of the ship, were the cables that attached the various items of the dump to their anchor finger.
But still free on the loose one hundred meter cable that attached it to its anchor, and which had had fifteen meters of slack when the ship first began its infinitesimal movement, was Project Hot Rod.
Nine minutes and twenty-three seconds. The velocity of the wheel with its increasing mass of trailing items, was five point four six centimeters per second. The nearly four million pound mass of Hot Rod was slowly being left behind.
The cable tautened the final fraction of a centimeter. Its tug was not fast, but was unfortunately applied very close to the center of gravity of the entire device, since most of Hot Rod's weight was concentrated in and around the control room.
Five point four six centimeters per second. Four million pounds of mass.
If the shock had been direct, it would have equaled two point eight million ergs of energy, created by the fractional movement of the mighty mass of the ship against Hot Rod.
But the shock was transmitted through the short end of a long lever. The motion at the beam director mirror, a full diameter out from the eight thousand foot diameter balloon that was Hot Rod, was multiplied nearly sixteen thousand times. Hot Rod rolled on its center of gravity, and its beam-director mirror swung in a huge arc. Sixteen thousand centimeters per centimeter of original motion. Eight hundred and seventy-three meters in the first second, before the tracking servos took over and began to fight back.
Hot Rod fought at the end of its tether like a mighty jellyfish hooked on the end of a line.
Gradually the swings decreased. Four hundred meters; two hundred meters; one hundred meters; fifty meters; twenty-five meters--and it had come back to a nearly stable focus on the sun.
But the beam director had also been displaced, and vibrated. Internally, the communications beam to Thule Base had been interrupted; and the fail-safe had not failed-safely.
The mighty beam had lashed out. The vibrations of the directing mirror began placing gigantic spots and sweeps of unresistible energy across the ice cap of Greenland, in an ever-diminishing Lissajous pattern.
By the time the servos refocused the communications beam on Thule, there was no Thule; only a burnt-out crater where it had been.
Slowly, but surely, the giant balloon settled itself to the task of burning a hole through the Greenland ice cap at a spot eighty miles north of that now-burnt-out Thule Base that had originally been planned as a test of its accuracy; and to the simple task of holding that focus in spite of the now steady, though infinitesimal acceleration under which it joined the procession headed by Lab One.
Now that the waves of action and reaction from the shock energy of its sudden start had subsided, Hot Rod's accuracy was proving great indeed; and its beam focus was proving as small as had been predicted.
But the instruments that would have measured those facts no longer existed.
In the engineering control center of Space Lab One, the Confusor churkled quietly and continued to pit its mosquito might against its now nearly seventy-eight million pound antagonist, as the protons and electrons of the plastic that was center to its forces did their inertial best to occupy that position in space towards the north star in which the warped fields around them forced them to belong--the mosquito strained its six hundred forty pound thrust against its giant in the per second per second acceleration that was effective only in the fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a centimeter in the first second, but that compounded its fractions per second.
On the quiet bridge, the captain looked up as the Com Officer said, "Thule Base, sir," and switched on his mike.
"Hot Rod has been sabotaged," a frantic voice on the other end of the beam shouted in his ear without formalities. "She's running wild. Kill her! Repeat, Hot Rod is wild! Kill Hot Rod! Kill--" the mike went dead as Captain Andersen switched to the morgue intercom.
"Hot Rod crew," he said briefly. "Report to the bridge on the double. Repeat. Hot Rod crew. The bridge. On the double."
As he switched off the intercom, the communications officer spoke urgently. "Captain. I've lost contact with Thule base."
"Keep trying to raise them," Captain Andersen said. He turned to Bessie. "Give me a display of the Hellmaker," he said; then, almost to himself, "There's still a flare in progress out there. We've got to kill it without sending men into that--"
He cut himself off in midsentence, as the computer displayed both Hot Rod, swaying gently as she fought out the battle of the focus through its final moments, and a telescopic view of Greenland, a tiny, glowing coal of red showing at the center of her focus.