Ishie turned, glanced at the panel, and went over to the switch, pushing it. "I wondered how you were concealing the teletype," he said. "You mean you really talk to it?"
The Sacred Cow's voice came back. "Reference not understoo-od. Ple-ease explai-ain."
"Oy!" said Ishie. "It even sounds like a cow!"
"Ye-es, si-ir," said the Cow. "A cow is an he-erbivorous ma-ammal, usua-ally do-omesticated, and fou-ound in mo-ost of the cou-ountries of Ea-arth. Wha-at specific da-ata did you-u wi-ish? The mi-ilk su-upply--"
"Hold it," Mike said, forestalling a long dissertation on the dairy industry.
Catching on quickly to the literal-mindedness of the placid computer, Ishie fired a direct question.
"What is our current position in relation to the equatorial orbit that we should be following?" he asked.
There was a sput from the speaker, very much as though someone had been caught off guard and almost said something, and then the placid reply came back.
"That information is top secret. Please identify yourself as Mike and I will answer you."
Ishie groaned, depressed the cutoff switch and turned to Mike.
"You fixed it," he said. "If a simple question like that gets an answer like that, how long do you think it will take the captain to find out something's wrong with the Cow?"
Mike lunged for the switch, but Ishie held him back.
"Hold it, Boy. You've made enough electronic mistakes for one day. This takes some thinking over."
"We better think fast," said Mike. "The captain'll ask that question any second now, or a question like it."
"All right," said Ishie. "First we've got to withdraw your original order--and you'd better not trust your own memory as to what it was. You ask the Cow to tell you what order you gave her making certain information top secret. Then when she tells you exactly what you said, you tell her to cancel that order."
Mike did as he was told.
"Why," said Ishie, "did you give such an order in the first place? Never mind answering that question," he added, "but it's lucky she hasn't been refusing to give people the time of day, and referring them to you. As a matter of fact"--glancing up at the clock on the wall--"it looks like she has. That clock hasn't moved since I got here."
Even as he spoke, the clock whirred, jumped forty-five minutes, and settled down to its steady, second-by-second spin.
"Ishie," said Mike, "we figured out a space drive, and that was great. But if we can figure out how to communicate an idea to a computer, we're real geniuses."
Ishie turned on the vocoder. "Please supply us," he told the Cow, "with a complete recording of your latest conversation with Mike."
And as the computer started back over the dialogue that has just occurred between herself and Mike, Ishie interrupted. "Not that," he said, "I mean the last previous conversation."
Then he sat back as the Cow unreeled a fifteen minute monologue which repeated both sides of the conversation including the order to make everything top secret.
Having listened through this, Ishie said: "At the point where Mike asks you about acceleration, you will now erase the rest of the conversation and substitute this comment from yourself: 'The lab is being accelerated by an external magneto-ionic effect.' This will be your only explanation of acceleration applied to the ship. Now please repeat your conversation with Mike."
Then he sat back to listen through the recording again.
This time when it came to the part about acceleration, without hesitation, the Cow referred blithely to the external magneto-ionic effect that was causing acceleration.
When Ishie asked the computer: "How could this effect be canceled?" and listened to a long syllogistic outline which, if condensed to a single, understandable sentence meant simply "by reversing the field in respect to the lab with a magnet on board the lab."
Ishie heaved a great sigh of relief, and said, "Now, Mike, we can go to work. For of course," he added, "we must have authority to install our magnetic coils, and what better authority is there than the Cow?
"Confusion say it is better to have the voice of authority speak with your words than to be the voice of authority.
"Now," he said, "let us see what we have really got here."
As they worked, time progressed. The empty racks around the Confusor slowly filled with more test instruments both borrowed and devised; and the formerly unoccupied corner of the section of panels took on more and more the look of a complete installation, in the center of which the Confusor still churkled quietly, pitting its strength against the mighty monster to which it was so firmly tied.
Two hours were spent in testing circuits, each one exhaustively. Then Ishie turned to Mike.
"We need still yet another test that we have not provided. A strain gauge to find out how much thrust a mosquito puts out. There's one in the physics lab. I'll run get it."
"You will not," said Mike. "Genius you may be, but proton-proof you're not. We can rig that right here."
Walking over to the spare parts locker, Mike brought back a complete readout display panel, a spare from one of the Cow's bridge consoles; and quickly connected it in to the data link on which the vocoder operated. Then, carefully instructing the computer as to the required display, he settled back.
"That'll do it," he said. "The Cow can tell us all we need to know right on that panel--about acceleration, lack of it, or change of it that we may cause by changing the parameters of our experiment. Those racks were checked out to stand up under eighty gees," he added. "Typical overspecification. They never said what would happen to the personnel under those conditions."
Ishie turned the Confusor off and then back on, and watched the display gauge rise to the six hundred forty mark, and then show the fraction above it .12128. Then carefully, ever so infinitesimally, he adjusted a knob on the device. The readout sank back towards zero, coming to rest reading 441.3971.
"We'll have to put a vernier control on this phase circuit," Ishie said to himself. "It jumped thirty per-cent, and I scarcely breathed on it."
After a few more checks on the operation of the phase control, he turned to the power control for the magnetic field. Carefully, Ishie lowered the field strength, eye on the readout panel. As the field strength lowered, the reading increased.
The indication was that by lowering the field strength only ten per cent, he had increased the thrust to sixteen hundred pounds--which, he felt, was close to the tolerance of the machine structure.
Carefully he increased the field strength again. Faithfully the reading followed it down the scale.
Then he had another thought. Running the field strength down and the pressure up, and again arriving at sixteen hundred pounds, he turned off the Confusor, waited a few moments, and turned it back on.
The reading remained zero.
Apparently, then a decrease in field strength would cause an increase in thrust; but the original field strength was necessary in order to initiate the thrust field.
Carefully he nudged the field strength back up, and suddenly there were seven hundred ten pounds indicated thrust.
Thrust could apparently be initiated by a field strength a few per cent lower, but not much lower, than the original operating point.
Captain Naylor Andersen arrived on the bridge with an accusing air, but feeling refreshed. He had slept longer than he intended--and though he had asked Bessie to call him when she came back on duty two hours earlier, he had not been called.
"You needed the sleep, captain," she told him unrepentant. "I checked with the Cow. The flare's predicted to continue for another eight hours. We're simply in standby."
However, various observatories on Earth had not been asleep. Within fifteen minutes of the time he reached the bridge, a message from U.N. Headquarters chattered in over the teletype.
"Tracking stations report your orbital discontinuity too great to have been achieved by jet action of nitrogen escaping from Hot Rod. Hot Rod pressures insufficient to achieve your present apparent acceleration. Please explain discrepancy between these reports and your own summation of ten hours previous. Suggest close and continual observation of Project Hot Rod. Suspect, repeat strongly suspect, possibility of sabotage. End message."
Nails Andersen stared at the sheet that the com officer had placed in his hands. Then he pressed the intercom to the morgue.
"Dr. Kimball. Please report to the bridge. Dr. P.E.R. Kimball. Please report to the bridge immediately."
Then he turned to Bessie. "Ask the Cow for an orbit computation from the time of the ... er ... meteor last night."
Under Bessie's practiced, computer-minded fingers, the answer wanted came quickly--a displayed string of figures, each to three decimal places, accompanied by a second display on the captain's console showing the old equatorial orbit across a grid projection of the Earth's surface to a point of departure over the mid-Atlantic where it began curving ever farther north, up across the tip of South America, very slightly off course.
The captain glanced at the display of Hot Rod and its taut-cable, and realized with a sickening sense of unreality that no jet action on Hot Rod could have caused it to lead the station in this northerly direction; and that instead it was placidly trailing behind. It was now farther south of the Space Lab than its original position; but their orbit had been displaced to the north.
Perk appeared beside the console, but the captain ignored the astronomer for a moment longer, while he leaned back thinking.
What could be the answer? A leak in the Space Lab itself? That would give acceleration; minor, not to have triggered an alarm--it should have triggered an alarm--but acceleration. Sufficient for the off-orbit shown? He did a brief calculation in his head. It wouldn't take much. Very little, for the time that had passed--Very well, then. He put down a leak in his mind as a possibility. Now, water or air? It could be either, if his reasoning this far were correct. He looked up.
"Have the Cow display barometric readings for each section of the rim and for each compartment in the central hub," he said briefly to Bessie; and to the astronomer, "Dr. Kimball, take that side seat at the computer console and check our progress on this orbital deviation," and he gestured at the display on his screen.
Perk moved to the post with only a nod.
The barometric displays held constant, with only fractional deviations that might have been imposed by the spin of the big wheel, or error in the instruments themselves. Balanced against temperature readings, they worked out to possible fractions of gain or loss so small as to be insignificant, indicating only the inaccuracies of measurement that inevitably occur in comparing the readings of a number of instruments.
The captain had hardly digested the readings displayed by the computer when Perk looked up with a puzzled frown.
"The computer records a continuous acceleration over the past eleven hours and forty-three minutes," he said, "and attributes it," he looked even more puzzled, "to a magneto-ionic effect?" There was a definite question in his voice.
"It's only about six hundred forty pounds," he added. "It must be an external effect caused by the flare."
"Please investigate the effect as thoroughly as possible," the captain told Perk, then dictated a message to the com officer.
"'To U.N. Headquarters, Earth, from Captain Naylor Andersen, commanding Space Lab One. Original assumption that disaster was attributable to meteoric impact on Project Hot Rod appears mistaken. Investigation indicates we are under acceleration from an external magneto-ionic effect which is exerting about--'" he called to Perk. "Did you say six hundred forty pounds?"
The astronomer nodded, and the captain continued, "'Which is exerting about six hundred forty pound pressure against this satellite. We are now working out corrective measures and will inform you immediately they are prepared. If your observatories can give us any advice, please message at once. End.'"
Then the captain depressed his intercom switch to the morgue. "Dr. Chi. Please report to the bridge. Repeat. Dr. Chi Tung. Please report to the bridge at once."
His own intercom hummed, and a voice came on. "Dr. Chi Tung is not in the morgue. He left with Mr. Blackhawk some time ago."
The captain frowned, but pushed the engineering room intercom. "Is Dr. Chi with you, Mr. Blackhawk?" he asked, and when Mike's voice answered, "Yes, sir," he said, "Will you both report to the bridge at once, please?"
When the two arrived, only a little tardily, on the bridge, the captain addressed Ishie.
"You heard of the disaster last night?" The physicist nodded. "We assumed then," the captain told him, "that a meteor had caused the disturbance. That it had gone through the balloon making a hole through which the balloon's nitrogen was escaping, making a jet action and accelerating the ship.
"It seems, however, that we are under acceleration, and that the acceleration is too great to be such jet action, since Hot Rod does not have sufficient pressure.
"The computer reports that the acceleration is derived from an external magneto-ionic effect. Would such an effect be a result of a flare?" he asked.
"I believe it could, captain. I should have to do a bit of math, but...."
"We will assume, then, that the computer is correct," the captain told him. "Could such an effect have a sufficiently great effect on this ship to give it as much as six hundred forty pounds of thrust?"
"Again, I should have to check the math, captain, but I would assume so."
"Mr. Blackhawk," the captain turned to his engineer, "could such a thrust throw Hot Rod off her communications beam and cause last night's disaster?"
"I guess I'd have to check by math, too, captain...." Mike appeared to debate the question. "It would be a very small acceleration at first, of course," he said, "from six hundred forty pounds of thrust. But Hot Rod's cable is slack, and the velocity needn't be great to give it quite a jolt when the slack was taken up. Yes, I feel sure that could happen, captain."
The captain relaxed a little, and a half-smile played near the corner of his mouth as he said to Mike, "I believe, then, we may have found the real saboteur, Mr. Blackhawk." Then to Ishie. "Doctor, I believe that your field is the one in which the most experience lies towards finding a means for counteracting the effect that is now influencing our orbit. I am putting you in charge of the problem. The pull, according to the computer, is as I said, six hundred forty pounds. Do you think you can work out a method for counteraction?"
"I think ... possibly, yes, captain. Let me say, probably yes."
"Then please do so, and report the method to me. I will then submit it to the other scientists aboard that may have some selective knowledge in the field, and to Earth. You may, of course, call on any of the personnel of the ship for assistance, and possibly Mr. Blackhawk may be of assistance to you. He is familiar with the equipment aboard.
"You probably recognize the urgency of the problem so I shall not attempt to underline that urgency further, other than to say that it is of the utmost importance," he ended.
Five minutes later the two conspirators were back in the engineering quarters, grinning like Cheshire cats, and mentally rolling up their sleeves to go to work. They had, to all intents and purposes, carte blanche to work out the construction of the device they would need for an enlarged Confusor with a real thrust, even though they would have to appear to co-operate with a multitude of other interested parties. Mike and Ishie were both becoming adept students of the mythical Dr. Confusion, and neither doubted their combined ability to handle that part of the problem.
"Now," said Ishie, "Confusion say he who can fly on wings of mosquito fly better on wings of eagle. How much thrust do we want, Mike?"
"What are our limits?" asked the practical engineer.
"Limits, schlimits. We got power. Of course," he added, "we are limited by the acceptable stress limits on the wheel, and ... yes ... by the stress limits on our plastic, too."
"The wheel was designed to stand upwards of 1.5 gee maximum spin--but that's only radial strength," Mike began figuring. "Don't think anybody ever calculated the stress of pulling the hub loose, endwise. No reason to, you know, and it wasn't expected to land or anything. And really, nobody expected it to stand in service more than a 1.5 gee spin on the rim. They computed these racks to take all kinds of shock, but the overall structure is rather flimsily built." He paused for thought. "We could maybe put a tenth of a gee on the axis, but I better check some of the stress figures against the structural pattern with the Cow first. We'll have to give some thought to strengthening things later, if we really want to go into the fantastic possibility of landing this monster anywhere."
Consulted, the Sacred Cow computed a potential maximum stress-safety at the hub of something over two-tenths of a gee, and the two finally settled on one-tenth as well within the limits.
"Now the other limit," said Ishie. "This little piece of plastic will only stand a pressure approaching the point at which it begins to distort and run out of the field. This stuff is quoted to have a compression-yield strength of one hundred ten pounds to the square inch. We probably shouldn't exceed ... hm-m-m ... ninety pounds. Let's get the Cow to tell us how big a chunk of surface area that represents."
The answer was discouraging. Mike rapidly converted the figure in centimeters to feet, and came up with nearly an eighty-three foot diameter for a circular surface.
"Looks like we'll have to put it out on the spokes," he muttered in disgust, but Ishie shook his head quickly.
"No need, Mike. Later on we'll need a few thrust points out on the rim for good aiming, but we don't have to have all this surface area in one unit or even in one place. Also, we do not need to consider only the surface of an homogeneous piece of plastic material.
"This plastic can be cast. Very easily. In it, we can insert structures that will absorb the strain from many surfaces within, rather than only on a front surface.
"I expect some of the glass thread with which the hull of the ship was made could be inserted with no trouble. Each thread, then, would take up the strain, and a mass of them distributed through the plastic could deliver a greatly increased amount of thrust from a volume of plastic rather than from a surface area."
Mike started to object. "To get an absolutely parallel magnetic field, the gap between the pole faces can't be very wide."