Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 04
“Aye, aye, captain,” Helena said, remorselessly rubbing the girl’s nose in her new pecking order.
“Aye, aye, captain.”
“So explain that explosion to me.”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Indulge me, speculate wildly.”
“Do you know anything about the professor’s work?”
“No, carry on.”
“Well he was working on sub-atomic physics.”
“What?” Helena was astonished. “I don’t claim to be up on the latest thinking but that surely went out with bows and arrows. The ancients explored that cull de sac pretty thoroughly and a fat lot of good it did them. They ended up with more fairy stories than a children’s nursery book. I mean, we’re talking bloody quantum bloody mechanicals or some such.”
“Quantum mechanics,” Flipper said, didactically.
Helena raised an eyebrow which was all it took for Flipper to take the hint and hurriedly proceed with her explanation.
“It’s true that the ancients had the weirdest superstitions about the natural world but they also carried out a number of empirical experiments with interesting results. They had these high speed accelerators that they used to smash atoms apart.”
“Is this going somewhere?”
“Well, you know that the heavier an element is the more likely it is to decay?”
“Yes, so what? The heavier elements are radioactive so completely useless and bloody dangerous.”
Flipper became more animated and confident now she was on home territory. She waved her hands to illustrate her description.
“The ancients found they could make small quantities of artificial heavy elements by smashing lighter ones together. The products were ridiculously unstable decaying in microseconds. However, the ancient’s mathematics predicted an island of stability where stable ultra-heavy elements could exist around element 126, unbihexium. They never had the technology, though, to reach this island.”
“Go on,” Helena said, becoming intrigued despite herself.
“Their theoretical understanding of what was going on involved superstition about magic sub-atomic particles called neutrons and protons that behaved as waves. In their system unbihexium was the 126th element because it had one hundred and twenty-six protons arranged in what they called a closed proton shell and around one hundred and ninety neutrons in a closed neutron shell. Nonsense of course.”
Flipper paused and gazed unseeing at the ground, not doubt pondering how stupid were ancient people or indeed was anyone over the age of twenty-five. Helena tapped her foot. The action startled the student back into the real world.
“But their mathematics was sound if used simply as a descriptive empirical construct. The professor tried to interest academia in building a modern more powerful version of the ancients’ accelerators to see if we could manufacture these stable heavy elements. The grant committees baulked at the cost.”
Flipper’s expression of contempt no doubt reflected her late professor’s opinion of nitpicking milksops who whined about money when knowledge was at stake. Actually, Helena sympathized with that view to some degree. The naval budget was always being squeezed to the detriment of The Service.
“How much would it have cost?” Helena asked.
“About half a million crowns not counting the cost of hollowing out a mountain.”
Helena’s sympathy evaporated.
“I can see why the proposal generated resistance,” she said dryly. “This is all very interesting but get to the point.”
“Neutron stars,” Flipper said, as if that was supposed to explain something.
“It’s all about neutron stars. You know they’re formed by exploding white dwarfs or collapsing massive stars?”
“The professor predicted that if a binary supernova…”
“A death star like the one that caused the Ordovician extinction on Old Earth?”
“Yes, if a death star’s gamma beam struck a collapsing massive star – something normally big enough to form a black hole – then the massive energies involved would create a powerful magnetar combining lighter elements into the super-heavies. Most would decay almost immediately except for those in the island of stability.”
“So you were looking for Element 126?”
“Yes, a stable superactinide with unusual properties.”
“Properties like what?”
“Well for one thing continuum fields would cause it to become unstable and decay. That was why samples could only be collected in realspace. No frame fields until we got it in a magnetic bottle.”
Helena wondered if she or just the rest of the world was mad.
“You had us out in a frame ship hunting for nuclear bomb fuel triggered to explode by a frame field? Was Finkletop rug-munching crazy?”
“No, no,” Flipper shook her head emphatically. “My calculations showed no release of energy. It was simply that the field would catalyze the breakdown of unbihexium into lighter elements.”
“So what happened?” Helena snapped, becoming thoroughly fed up with going around the academic houses. “What went wrong?”
“I have been going over the maths again and again.”
So that was what she had been doing, Helena thought.
“I think I got the calculations wrong,” Flipper whispered. “Unbihexium is weirder than I anticipated. Its decay isn’t energy neutral but it doesn’t lose mass and release energy like every other radioactive material. When unbihexium decays the products weigh more than the starting material.”
Helena looked blank.
“Don’t you see? It gains mass. That’s why it’s normally stable. It can’t access the necessary energy input.”
Helena still must have looked as baffled as she felt. Flipper spelt it out, step by step.
“The coxswain must have switched the boat’s field back on before the professor finished sealing the sample into the magnetic bottle.”
“Wait a minute. I agreed that the frame field would be switched off just for the time necessary to get samples, not to leave it off while Finkletop buggered about with his equipment. He lied to me?”
Flipper looked evasive.
“Not lied exactly, just economical with the truth.”
Helena snarled wordlessly.
Flipper rushed out more words. “He thought you wouldn’t agree. The field had to stay off until the unbihexium sample was completely isolated.”
Helena took a deep calming breath before speaking.
“No doubt the coxswain would be more concerned with being splattered by a meteorite than by the professor’s activities.”
“Yes, the coxswain must have disobeyed the professor and turned on the field prematurely,” Flipper said, repeating herself.
“Damn right!” Helena said. “He did the right thing.”
“No doubt he thought so but the boat’s field initiated unbihexium breakdown when it activated. Radioactive decay got the initial energy input from the frame field. I suspect the reaction ran wild after it started. It sucked in the necessary power from the surroundings, causing the implosion.”
“Impossible, something can’t suck in heat,” Helena said.
“That’s not entirely true. If you blow bubbles into a highly volatile liquid through a straw…”
Helena wondered where fizzy drinks came into it. “What?”
“…you freeze the surroundings. That’s how a ‘fridge works. Energy absorption is the only explanation I can come up with. The ship’s field was interacting with the jolly boat’s so …”
“So this negative energy wave,” Helena said, for want of a better description, “went through the jolly boat’s field into the ship’s field where it froze the ship, stalled the motors and drained the heat sinks?”
“It’s not really negative energy…” Flipper stopped upon seeing the look on Helena’s face and merely bit her lip and nodded.
The girl’s face brightened.
“It takes a lot of energy to make a little bit of mass. The reaction must have been short lived or we would have been taken down to absolute zero. This is going to make quite an impressive publication,” Flipper said, eyes shining with academic fervor. “I might get it in Brasilian Science or even the Terran Universe Journal. I think Tee Yu would be best as it has a higher impact rating.”
“Publication, in a Terran journal, are you mad? You aren’t going to publish this anywhere,” Helena said, looking at the girl in astonishment.
Helena touched her datapad.
“Captain?” replied the mate.
“Ms. Wallace is to be placed under immediate close solitary arrest. She is not to be harmed in any way. I make you personally responsible for her welfare but she is not to talk to anybody or have any access to communication devices until we hand her over to the NID.”
Grieg responded as if the order was standard routine. “The Naval Intelligence Department, ma’am?”
“Correct, give her a fatigue suit and place all her possessions in a case locked with my authorization code.”
Helena turned her datapad off but flicked it on again when a thought struck her.
“And all of Finkletop’s stuff, as well.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” said the mate, unperturbed by orders from officers no matter how peculiar.
Flipper gazed at Helena blankly as if she couldn’t understand what was happening. The girl really didn’t have a clue.