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Not In The Literature

Alarik Kade had not spent fifty-eight years of his life on The Project without acquiring an instinct for a day that is really going to go sour.

Signs and portents a tyro would scarcely connect up often gave him the first powerful indications. Things like the hungry redjacket drill that droned down the ventilation pipe around 0266 the night before, popped through a rusty spot in the screen, then whined around the room, banging into concrete floor, ceiling, and walls at random till it picked up the heat radiation from Alarik, huddled under a light comforter with the pillow over his head.

The drill hit the comforter, and Alarik sprang out of bed in a rush. The ring of night-glow dots around the lamp base guided him quickly to the lamp, but where was the striker? As Alarik groped around the tabletop, he could hear behind him the zzt-zzt and half-hysterical whine as the drill got into the warm covers and stabbed around in all directions for some place to draw blood.

Cursing under his breath, Alarik felt the cold curving surface of a pewter water pitcher, the smooth back of a closed razor, a slim volume containing logarithms to the base eight, a handkerchief, a thick book of well-tested pragmatic formulas and their constants, an ashtray with gold-plated model of an early turbine plane, a glossy brochure telling why he should buy Koggik Steel, a progress report he should have read last night and hadn't, a .50 Special Service Revolver with all four barrels full of rust, a Lawyer Skeel mystery with three shapely girls on the cover, which he shouldn't have read last night but did—but no striker.

The whine of the drill was growing increasingly petulant. At any moment the thing might detect Alarik with its heat-sensitive nose and come for him. What would happen then, he thought, would be that in trying to hit the drill, he would knock the pitcher over and soak the book and papers on the table. With a sense of grim satisfaction in his foresight, Alarik set the pitcher on the floor, close to one of the table's massive cross-braced legs, and then felt of the tabletop again.

A little beyond where the pitcher had been, his three outstretched fingers felt the flaring squeeze-grip of the striker.

Just then, the whine grew suddenly louder. Alarik ducked, banged his head, and the striker clattered to the floor. The drill smacked into the wall behind him. Alarik groped for the striker. The drill took off in a new line and hit him squarely in the back.

The room seemed to take a somersault.

Alarik came to with his face in the concrete and the last dregs of the drill's knock-out poison fogging his mind. His head ached, he could hear a noise in his ears like the roar of a waterfall, and there was a throbbing bump on his back about half the size of his fist.

Dizzily he pulled himself to his feet.

The way things had happened so far assured him he was in for a rough day. Whether it would be a real record-breaker, he told himself, remained to be seen.

He took a step forward, and put his right foot squarely into the water pitcher. His foot slid in smoothly and tightly and in clutching for support he knocked the razor off onto the floor. As he gripped the edge of the table, a muffled banging whine told him a fresh and hungry drill was blundering down the vent pipe.

Keeping a tight grip on his emotions, Alarik lowered himself to the floor and felt for the striker. His hand closed instead around the open blade of the razor. He gingerly shut the razor, slid it out of the way under the table, and heard it hit something with a metallic clink.

Alarik groped under the table, found the striker, stood up with his weight resting on his left foot, squeezed the striker once to see the cluttered tabletop by the light of the striker's sparks, managed to get the glass shade off the lamp without breaking anything, turned the knob of the rack-and-pinion mechanism to get the fragile mantle up out of the way, opened the gascock, and squeezed the handle of the striker. The flints scraped across the ridged steel, the gas lit with a pop, and Alarik triumphantly put on the chimney and lowered the mantle. The mantle lit up in a dazzling glare that showed a second redjacket drill, as big as Alarik's thumb, pushing in through the ventilator screen.

Alarik sprang forward to kill it, slipped, and landed on the floor. The drill streaked around overhead, Alarik's right arm and leg jerked up in a self-protective reflex, the water pitcher stuck to his right foot emptied itself in his face, and just then the drill detected the promising heat of the lamp. The drill whizzed around in tight circles, shot down the chimney, and whipped the mantle to bits. The room fell dark, and the gas jet settled down to incinerating the drill. A column of greasy smoke rose from the lamp chimney, and a powerful choking odor filled the room.

All this left Alarik Kade, Chairman-Director of the Special Project, half-choked and with one foot in a pitcher, picking the smoldering remains of one drill out of the lamp while still dizzy from the bite of another, and with the muffled hopeful buzz of yet a third standing the hair on end all over his body.

That was how the day started.

And experience told Alarik that with a start like that, it was bound to be a day he would never forget—if he lived through it.


The sunlight, when Alarik came up into it, after finishing out the miserable night, lit up a day that, on its surface, at least, looked good.

For one thing, there was not a cloud in the sky. That meant reasonably good ground observation. He glanced up, and saw, far overhead, the glint of the shiny aluminum gondola of Sunbird. The name made him uneasy, reminding him of the hydrogen that had been substituted for helium in the hope of getting a little more precious lift for high-altitude observation. A brief dazzling flash told him that Sunbird's signal mirrors were working properly, and that in turn meant that the aggravating difficulties with the seals of the remote arm were taken care of, at least for the present.

Off over the flat bright sand to his right, at the end of the long runway, the big turbine plane was being slowly wheeled around. Judging from the slowness with which it was turned, it already had its load of fuel and water, and being perfectly reliable, no one was worried about it. Slung under its midsection like a babe clinging to its mother was one of his two big headaches.

To his left, like an upright giant dagger with nearly conical blade and an almost cylindrical haft, stood The Beast. This was his other, and much larger, headache. Contradictory emotions of love and hate welled up in Alarik as he looked at it. No one could work on The Project for all this time without feeling a little of both these emotions.

As Alarik gazed at the shiny form, a hurrying figure coming toward him from the base of The Beast drew his attention.

Alarik nodded in foreboding. Now it would start. He had been allowed this moment of beautiful tranquility in order to give a contrasting background against which the day's misfortunes would stand out to better effect. As a check, he glanced around toward the turbine plane. Sure enough, here came a second hurrying figure. To further test the auguries, he glanced up. A tiny cloud was materializing just about on a line between Observation 10 and the projected path of The Beast as it arced out over the ocean. That would foul up the whole launch, unless the cloud moved on.

But the cloud showed no sign of moving on. It seemed to be shredding away on one end, and forming again on the other end, and at the same time gliding steadily forward, so that the net result, fantastic as it might seem, was just the same as if it didn't move at all. But it was getting bigger, he was sure of that. Alarik squinted at the cloud, then shook his head. Even in this modern day, the only truly intelligent life form in the universe had no more control over the weather—or real basic understanding of it—than on the distant day when a remote ancestor peered out the burrow mouth and some spark of intelligence suggested that that smoldering stubble from the grass could be put to use.

What had it been, thought Alarik, the fear of some digging enemy, or—

The chain of philosophical speculation was snapped as two hurrying pairs of feet arrived from opposite directions.

"Sir, the triggering clock is seventeen sixty-fourths off, halfway through the cycle, and the An. Comp. boys say she'll burn up on re-entry. We've tried re-setting, but that throws the clock off on both ends, and Comp. tells us then she won't go into orbit. We've got a new clock checked out, but all the control wires have to be reset, and that's going to take the rest of the morning. If we lift off this afternoon, she'll land in the pick-up area at night, unless we reset the clock. But if we reset that clock, we won't be able to lift off till tonight."

"What about Ganner's magnesium flare?"

"Sir, we tried it out three times last week and it worked fine. We installed it last night and ran a test check on a Pup rocket. Nothing happened."

Alarik gripped his chin. "It came down with no signal?"

"Oh, the siren was on. And this morning the ocean was red for a hundred spans in all directions from where she hit. The underwater sound ship picked up a good solid ping from the noisemaker. But all that stuff is too slow and uncertain. When the boys got there, she was sunk."

"Scrub the flight. We'll try again tomorrow."

"Sir, Weather says—"

Alarik glanced at the cloud. There was now a smaller cloud trailing it, and the first cloud looked bigger. He looked away angrily.

"When did Weather ever know what it was talking about? If we don't get clear weather for a month, that's just so much more time to perfect our equipment. And get me the name of the contractor who sold us that clock."

"Yes, sir." He turned and sprinted back toward the gleaming shaft of The Beast.

Alarik considered that he had got off easy. What if the clock had gone sour after she took off? The odds were that with his luck the An. Comp. boys would be wrong and instead of burning up on re-entry, she would make a freak re-entry, and come down through the roof of a metropolitan temple with the chief priest in charge and the benches crammed with notables.

Someone cleared his throat, and Alarik realized he wasn't safe in the burrow yet. He looked up and waited.

"Sir, the Babe's got a malfunction."

"What is it this time?"

"The hydraulic columns that control the impact-fuse-igniters. There's an overflow for excess temperature. Well, somehow air worked back into the lines, and now they're spongy. As sure as anything, we're going to get up there, let her loose, and dig ourselves a crater."

Alarik could hear more feet approaching, this time from behind.

"How long," he said, "to bleed the lines?"

"Considering how cramped it is in there, it's an all day job. What we need is some simpler way to ignite the tubes."

"I know. We've got research teams working on it. But for now, we'll just have to put up with more delay."

"Yes, sir. We should be able to get off tomorrow for sure."

Alarik nodded, and turned to find his assistant, Kubic, holding a small earnest-looking man by the arm.

"Sir," said Kubic, "this fellow claims to have some reliable method of setting off fuses with constant-length wires."

Alarik shrugged. "It's been tried. I doubt that if our teams of trained chemists couldn't find the ideal solution, a lone researcher could."

Kubic nodded. "Yes, sir, I know. But we've had so much trouble—"

"No doubt about that," said Alarik with feeling. He glanced at the newcomer.

Kubic glanced at him, too, then cleared his throat. "Any hole in a hurry," he said.

The fellow certainly looked unprepossessing. But then, you could never tell with a chemist. Some of the best dispensed with appearance and pretense entirely. You just couldn't tell.

"All right," said Alarik. "Go ahead. What's your solution. Remember, these wires curl back through both hot and cold regions alike. The fuses don't ignite easily. It takes a sharp crack to ignite them. They aren't supposed to ignite one at a time, but a bunch together. And we don't want any fishnet of wires in there. The thing has to be reasonably simple. To keep your tension constant is no easy problem."

"I know." The newcomer beamed and nodded.

"We don't want any maze of springs and pulleys. The present system is bad enough, what with the need for special heat-resistant plastics, double-lines, heat-stable liquids, and so on. A terrific amount of the highest type of chemistry has gone into it."

"I realize that," said the newcomer. "I don't claim to be a true chemist. I just like to follow my interest. I've been sort of an amateur chemist since childhood, and . . . well, I got to playing around with strips of zinc and copper one day, and put them into some dilute sulfuric acid, and for some reason, I laid another strip of copper across the tops of the strips standing in the acid."

Alarik smiled. "And you got bubbles on the copper strip. It's a standard experiment."

"Yes, but I wondered about it. Why did I get bubbles?"

"It's a well known chemical fact. Immerse copper and zinc in acid, let there be contact, and bubbles form on the copper. The bubbles are hydrogen gas." Alarik smiled tolerantly. "Go ahead. What next?"

"I wondered, why must there be contact?"

Alarik blinked. "What's that?"

"Bubbles formed when I joined zinc and copper strips. Why did these strips have to be joined?"

Kubic glanced at Alarik's frown, and said hastily. "The Director's time is limited. Now, if you'll come to the practical aspect of your idea—"

"Wait," said Alarik. "He's got a point. Why does there have to be contact? I performed that experiment, too, but that question never occurred to me." He looked at the man with new respect. "I would say that you must be a natural-born chemist. You are, I suppose, associated with the university nearby, at Kerik Haven?"

"No, no." A stricken look crossed the visitor's face. "Please, I am nobody. All that matters is this discovery, which I happened across purely by accident."

Kubic cleared his throat, and said uncomfortably, "The fellow is a janitor at the University."

"Well, in that position, he could, I suppose, observe, experiment, learn—"

"In the Dance Workshop," said Kubic.

Alarik frowned.

Their guest hung his head. "I was thrown out of the Chemistry Program as a student. I hung on, got a job as a janitor, and they threw me out of that job, too. But I've got a friend in the stockroom. He helps me get what I need."

Alarik considered the possibility that the man was a suppressed genius. It had happened often enough in the past, heaven knew. But in this enlightened age, such things were said to be impossible. Chemical talent was searched for eagerly, coaxed along with scholarships, rewarded lavishly with high pay.

Their visitor seemed to sense Alarik's line of thought. "Please," he said, "don't think that I am trying to present myself as a chemist of any kind. I think . . . I think I have some skill, some insight, but it is of a different type. At school, my teachers told me that I asked the wrong questions. I disagreed. I was more combative then." For a moment, he lifted his head. His eyes flashed. Then he shrugged, and looked down at the dirt. "It's all gone now." There was bitterness in his voice. Then he smiled suddenly. "But I can solve your igniter problem for you."

"How does this wire of yours work?" said Alarik.

"Well, to explain it completely, I would have to describe to you a great deal of work I did with the two strips of metal." A wary look crossed his face. "But I've found that it's better not to go into that."

Kubic said, "Just tell us the practical details."

"Well, essentially, it is this. You run a wire from the pilot's compartment back to the fuse. When the pilot wishes that particular fuse to ignite, he presses a button."

Alarik frowned. "This is a very stiff wire."

"No, not especially."

"Then it is a reasonably stiff wire enclosed within a casing?"

"No. Oh, well, yes. There is a fibrous sheath over the wire."

"How will that stiffen it?"

"It doesn't need to be stiff," the newcomer answered.

"Then what moves it?"

"It doesn't move."

Alarik scowled at him. Kubic frowned.

"Then," said Alarik, "why does the pilot punch the button?"

"Because—He does it to—Well, that's what I'm coming to."

"Wait a minute," said Alarik. "A push is communicated along this wire, is that right?"

"No, sir."

Alarik stared at him. Suddenly he snapped his fingers. "It twists, is that it? You've found a way to convert a push into a twist, and then—"

"No. No, it doesn't twist. It doesn't move at all."

"Doesn't move at all?"

"That's the point. It heats."

Kubic groaned.

Alarik shook his head. "No good. No, it won't work."

"But why not? Heat will trigger off the fuse."

Alarik felt faintly sick. He glanced at Kubic, and jerked his head toward the gate. That, he thought, was the trouble with these unsung geniuses. They wanted to sing for an audience and they didn't even know the scale.

Kubic put his hand firmly on the man's arm.

"Ah, I see," said the fellow suddenly. "Not the whole wire. Just the end."

Alarik forced a smile. "It happens to be the other end we're interested in."

Kubic turned him around, and led him off forcibly.

Alarik could hear them in the distance. Kubic's voice was a series of low monosyllables. The other man's voice rose in loud complaint, and as the wind happened to be from that direction, he could hear him almost to the inner gate.

"But," the man cried, "it's the fuse end I'm talking about!"

Kubic muttered something or other.

"No, no, you don't understand! Friction has nothing to do with it! It's not heat conduction along the wire! That's not it!"

Kubic paused to take a better grip on his guest's sleeve.

Alarik frowned. If it wasn't friction, what was it? Here is a man who pushes a button attached to a wire. The wire is not stiff, but is enclosed in some kind of sleeve. The wire gets hot. Then it would burn the sleeve, wouldn't it? But wait a minute. Only the end gets hot. The rest of the wire doesn't move at all, doesn't twist—How does the end get hot?

"No! No! No! No!" came the voice, climbing higher. "It isn't that at all! I can show you!"

Alarik came to a sudden decision. He was hung around the neck with chemists of the most exalted rank. They all thought alike. They were the elite of the elite, but maybe he needed a fresh mind. What if the man's approach wasn't truly chemical? Just let it work, that's all. He cupped his hands to his mouth to shout to Kubic.

Abruptly the visitor ripped free of Kubic's grip. His voice carried in an almost hysterical shout:

"You're hidebound! You're blind as bats, the lot of you! I've begged for just a chance to prove there's such a thing as current, and there is! I can prove it! It's staring you in the face! But you won't listen! You fools! A current flows through that wire, and when it goes through the constricted end, then the end heats! No, it's not chemical. You can't argue against it because it's not chemical! It's potentially just as great as anything that is chemical! I try to tell you, it's a whole new field of knowledge!"

Alarik lowered his hands. He shook his head and shrugged. He glanced around at the towering evidence of chemistry in a chemical world. Chemistry was the study of matter, and matter was everywhere. Everything that was, was made of matter. There was nothing else, could be nothing else but matter. Oh, there was light, and sound, and lightning, but the best minds held that these were just disturbances in matter, or in finer forms of matter. There was the field of atmospheric chemistry, for instance, and the field of aetheric chemistry, but there was some doubt as to whether these fringe studies, particularly the latter, were really chemical at all.

How, all considered, could any other field of knowledge possibly hope ever to compare with the study of matter? Builders, mechanicians, physicians—all had important work to do, but they admitted they were only quasi-chemists, not truly chemical. Only the mathematicians held aloof, proclaiming a loftier discipline. But in actual practice, they were tied in knots. They couldn't accomplish a thing without a thousand trials, errors, and reservations. Matter just was not amenable to their theories, except in rare special cases.

He shrugged.

A last shout carried back on the wind:

"I'll show you! It's bound to come out some day. Current does flow!"

That decided it. What could flow through a solid metal wire? There was no space for anything to flow on the inside, and on the outside anything would fall off—or else ooze through the spaces in the fibrous sheath and drip out. Solid matter was largely incompressible. Therefore nothing could flow through it, because to flow, there must be space. And you couldn't have a current without something that flowed. And nothing could flow where there was no space.

Kubic came back, shaking his head.

"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't realize. The fellow's a fanatic."

"Well, it was worth a try. I thought for a minute there he had something."

"He acted plausible enough. But he blew up on the way out. Talked all kinds of gibberish."

"Yes, he didn't make much—Wait a minute!"


"Listen. Suppose we use a stiff wire, inside a conduit of close spiral spring, and rotate that inner wire very fast, with pressure, against a narrow abrasive head applied to the fuse case?"

"Hm-m-m, you mean the friction will generate heat?"

"Sure it will. Now, of course, it isn't a very chemical procedure. It's just a piece of mechanism. But that's how we've progressed in The Project over the past hundred years or so. One little brick on top of another. In time, we'll get there."

"Yes, sir. But I don't know. Good mechanicians are as rare as shock-proof lamp mantles. You remember, twenty years ago, when we were using spring triggers on the fuses. That seemed pretty good till they complexified it up to the point where we couldn't recognize it any more. Then they got that hydraulic idea, and—Well, I don't know. One thing just seems to lead to another. It seems as if this is all taking too long. We go around in circles. Somehow, it's like trying to pull nails with a wrench. Where the devil do you take a hold? There's a tool missing from the kit somewhere."

"It's been a bad day," said Alarik, scowling. "Of course, over the long view, there is progress. And, occasionally, there's a real breakthrough. That new fuel, for instance. And, best of all, the superrefractive coating. Then, it was no small improvement when we hit on dissipation-cooling, and all the refinements of that. But I know, somehow these big advances don't make the dent they ought to."

Kubic glanced around at various massive structures that stretched off to north and west as far as the eye could see. "Well," he said, "it keeps unemployment down, I'll say that for it. But something tells me a lot of our effort here is at a tangent to the problem."

Alarik nodded. "I'll tell you what," he said. "We'll press this rotary-fire principle, and see what comes of it. We can send a routine payment check to this fellow you brought in. After all, he suggested the idea, whether he meant to or not. He, at least, claims to develop some new method. He may be a fanatic, but then, you look at some of the early chemists—"

Kubic nodded approval. "Good idea, sir. To tell the truth, I don't see why there has to be contact to evolve those bubbles, either."

"Take care of it now," said Alarik. "You never know when something will happen and we'll forget all about it."

Kubic's eyes widened. "Sir, look there—"

Alarik looked up.

"The devil with it. Get going, I'll take care of this."


Sprinting across the field from the bulk of The Beast came what looked like the whole maintenance crew. Alarik gave Kubic a shove, to start him in the right direction, and Kubic ran off to disappear behind a protecting buttress that led back to the Administration Building.

Alarik studied The Beast. Was that a wisp of smoke he saw, puffing out from under the drive ring?

Mechanicians, builders, brace men, clockers, supervisors, chemical technicians—the whole crew pounded across the field as if their lives were at stake.

That was smoke under the drive ring.

As he watched, a white plume billowed out, traveled slowly around the circumference, and wreathed the daggerlike base in smoke. Another plume joined the first, then another and another. The curving near-cylindrical top rode above the billowing clouds with no visible support.

Alarik held his arm out, stabbed his forefinger at the earth, and shouted, "Ground!"

All the workmen but the crew chief disappeared in a series of flying dives.

The crew chief, breathing hard, tears streaming out the corners of his eyes, ran to Alarik and saluted.

"Sir, I'll stay up and take my medicine. It was my fault. I—"

Thunder traveled across the field.

Alarik knocked the crew chief down the nearest hole and dove after him.

Pink brilliance reflected dimly on the sides of the tunnel.

"What happened?"

"The inside clocker—He's new. I shouldn't have let him down alone. We can't use any kind of lamps in there. He had to work with just a glow plate."

"What happened?"

The earth began to shake.

"Go on," shouted Alarik, "what happened?"

"He bumped the master pull wire, where it comes in out of the sheath from Control. The safety was pushed down, and by mistake, the tip must have been over the wire; the pin popped up out of the hole, the safety let go, the arming spring knocked the lever around, the safety came down and hit the taut wire, and that sprang the lever. We could hear it—Wham! Wham! Wham! Then she started."

Alarik swore.

The crew chief shouted above the roar. "He's still in there. He's in there now! The weight-savers dropped the ladders and weather covers loose. He couldn't get out. We just got down ourselves before the tower got jerked away."

The tunnel lit up in a pink glow, and they eased back around a corner.

"It's too complicated," the crew chief shouted. Then it was too loud to hear, and the uproar was too much to talk in anyway.

Alarik lay in the hole, his body one living ache. Gradually, awareness returned.

Well, he thought dully, there she goes. The faulty clock is still in her. The gliders and the Sunbird may get some data, but it's meaningless with that nonstandard clock in there. At intervals, The Beast will shoot out luminous vapor clouds, and that may help in the tracking—maybe. But where would she come down?

There must be some better way than this, he thought. It can't be this complicated. This was like trying to tie up a handful of marbles with a ball of string. When it got this complicated, it meant you were trying to do the job with tools or materials that weren't fitted to the work.

The roar was just about all gone now.

There was a thud, and Kubic came around the corner of the tunnel in a crouch.

"Sir, are you all right?"

"In a sense," growled Alarik. "How was it?"

"Beautiful. It looked beautiful. Actually, it was terrible, but it looked fine."

"Well, that's something."

"I got that pay voucher made out."

Alarik froze. Suddenly, ignoring the staring crew chief, he jumped up and grabbed Kubic by the arm.

"The devil with all that," he said. "I'm sick of this stuff!"

"Sir? You want me to cancel it?"

"No, no! Go on out there! Go get him! Grab him! Bring him back!"

"Yes, sir," said Kubic with alacrity.

He went up out of the hole in a rush.

Alarik climbed up into the open air. Far overhead was a small bright dot, gradually growing fainter.

As it disappeared, he could hear a determined voice carrying across the field, speaking of "currents" as something real, actual, and usable.

Alarik looked around. For a moment, he felt guilty. What he had in mind was unchemical. Therefore it was chicanery, fraud, quackery, unprofessional—

"The devil with it," growled Alarik. Years of accumulated frustration weighed on him like lead.

His hands opened and shut like those of a man badly in need of a hammer and he eyed the sky in supplication.

"Just give me," he said earnestly, "a tool to fit the job."


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