We continue with Marc's life...
By now it should be clear that the universe DuQuesne supposedly inhabits is a crossbreed of Doc Smith's two most famous works, the Skylark and Lensman series.
"Blackie" DuQuesne squeezed himself, with difficulty, farther under the imaging tank – an N-th generation descendant of the original cloud-chambers used in early nuclear experiments, adapted for the specific task of reacting to the presence of liberated sub-etheric particles of the third order. He grunted as he found the loose connection – one of the grounding connectors had worked loose, probably due to resonant vibration; he had to pad these things better.
He tightened the grounding strap again, and stood up, stretching to his full six foot eight and a half, and took a deep breath. There were disadvantages to being this big, though it was sure useful in other circumstances. He turned back to the squat, ovoid device attached to the imaging tank; such a tank of course implied something capable of producing liberated sub-etheric particles, and that something was what DuQuesne was working with. The official description in his proposal and development notes was "Hyperatomic mass frequency sub-etheric resonance accelerator", but it was commonly called the "whatsitron", "itaintsotron" and more … salty names by other physicists, as it appeared capable – despite desktop size and relatively modest power demands – of probing the deep structure of matter even more effectively than building-sized cyclotrons by using the mass resonance of heavy nuclei in structured waves to destabilize target matter and cause it to momentarily dissassemble into sub-etheric particle or energy components.
At this point, DuQuesne wanted to use one of the more obscene names for the device, as it was being particularly balky, and the young physicist had very particular requirements for it to meet in this experiment. Finally he got the acceleration plates and tubes balanced properly and set the whatsitron running, immediately triggering his high-speed cameras to record any new particle tracks. Distantly he was aware of a crash from the neighboring lab – Seaton's – but he didn't dare leave the finicky device unless alarms went off. There were several more noises, but he ignored them, concentrating on his work. Finally, he breathed a sigh of relief and shut the finicky thing down.
While running the film through a quick-develop unit, he heard voices, a few laughs, and – to his surprise – Seaton's voice, sounding either frustrated, angry, or both. A small group of the other researchers, including Ferdinand Scott, passed his door, shaking their heads and muttering something that did not sound very complimentary.
Curiosity finally aroused, DuQuesne made sure the quick-develop was running properly and headed next door. Stepping through the doorway, he saw Seaton's head snap up almost defensively before he recognized who was there. "Oh, it's you, Blackie," he said, and turned his attention back to studying what appeared to be a small pile of wreckage on an otherwise empty lab bench, in front of a window which was now covered with a large section of taped cardboard.
"What happened, Rich?" He could tell his friend was seriously bothered by something. "Have an accident?" He noted what looked like a fresh scratch or cut on Seaton's hand, another on his cheek.
"I had a something, but what, I don't know. And I could reproduce the effect twice, and then I couldn't – when there were witnesses." Seaton managed a wry smile. "Remember last year when we were talking to those soi-disant 'psychics'?"
DuQuesne chuckled. "Yeah. You pointed out how 'psychic powers' always work… until someone's really watching close. So that was what had Scotty whispering to the others about the pressure getting to the boy genius, huh?"
"Oh, that's just the absolute topper. How long will it be before the rest of the lab thinks I'm a few bricks short?"
"Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Seaton shrugged. "Why not? Maybe you can figure it out; my skull seems to be made of about ninety-seven inches of solid ferrocrete right now. You know I've been looking for some of those ultra-heavy stable materials our theory implied, right?"
"Yeah. We calculated that some should be formed in stellar explosions – like other heavy elements often are – and that the most likely candidates would be some kind of noble metal. So you've been searching in the tailings from platinum and gold mining, and in native nuggets, for small traces of these things."
"Right. So I actually started making progress this week, real honest-to-God progress with batch 83, the refined waste from that one processing plant in Alaska. I went through about a ton and a half of the stuff, recovered quite a bit of platinum, iridium, and gold they'd missed, a little Osmium, and then, at the end, I got a solution that seems to be about 10 percent something else – call it 'X'." DuQuesne nodded to show he followed the description. "So I was trying to electrolyze the stuff out and something made the table wobble – I think I probably bumped it, but who knows – the electrolyzing copper bath solution sloshed over and began to bubble, I yanked the beaker with the solution away, and the whole damn bath just … launched itself out the window, accelerating at a pace so huge it's almost impossible for me to believe, and I saw it."
DuQuesne looked at his friend sharply, but saw only honest confusion there, and nodded slowly. "This was a standard setup?"
"Bog-standard; hadn't even modified the wiring. I'd show you, but near as I can figure, if it hasn't stopped accelerating, it passed the moon a while ago."
"No way it kept accelerating. But… you said you reproduced it, so you must have figured out what happened."
"Oh, sure. Or I thought I did. Take a look at the wall over there. A close look."
DuQuesne approached the indicated wall, near the broken window, and bent close. In the evenly spaced brick, his keen eyes spotted twin anomalies: neat, very tiny holes. Aligning his view with the holes, he thought he even saw faint light through them, meaning they went entirely through the two-foot thickness of the massive UE Scientific Research building walls. He looked back, raising his eyebrow quizzically.
"Yep, that's it. See, I thought about what happened – thought about it hard, until my brain almost fell out. So what happened was I set up the solution, the table got bumped, solution sloshed on the copper wires – and instantly plated them through electrolysis with 'X'. I grabbed the beaker and bumped the wires as I did so and a spark jumped from one to the other and off the whole thing went."
"Got it. So you figured it was something having to do with plated copper and electrical energy, so you plated yourself some wire, put it across an electrical current, and bang, off went a piece of wire?"
Seaton nodded. "Right through the wall. And then along came Scotty and the others, and I told them a summary and tried to show them, and nothing happened. Nothing at all."
DuQuesne, now thoroughly intrigued, took a small piece of copper wire, dipped it in the jury-rigged electrolytic cell, saw a silvery-brown coating appear, and then touched the wire to some open contacts. Nothing of interest happened. "Clearly coated, but nothing happens."
DuQuesne sat down and went over the entire process with Seaton, step by step. For over an hour, the two scientists went back and forth over the story and events, finding nothing that made any sense insofar as the new phenomenon working versus not working in the span of a few minutes.
Suddenly, DuQuesne stood straight up. "Rich, when was this? Exactly?"
"When? Um… let's check the notes. Okay, I started the electrolytic bath up at 3:05 PM, and it was a few minutes later I watched it fly away. So call it 3:10. "
"And it was about 5:30 that Scotty and the others came by…" DuQuesne trailed off, then headed for the door. "When I shout, you try it again, okay?"
"Sure thing, but what –"
"I'll explain in a minute!"
DuQuesne raced into his own laboratory and started the whatsitron back on. It had naturally come out of adjustment after cooling off and he had to spend some time fiddling with it.
"Blackie, you ready yet?"
"Almost." The readings were finally settling down and he could now see the unique white-violet glow. "Now, Rich!"
With the building now deserted except for the two of them, it didn't take super-sensitive ears to hear the whipcrack sound that followed. Seaton let out a whoop of triumph. "That's got it, Blackie! What the heck did you do?"
"It's the whatsitron, Rich. I was running it nonstop from about 2:40 until 4:30 to 5."
"The whatsitron? At that range? But the resonant field strength would be…"
"Your 'X' would be a superheavy nucleus and might amplify the resonance significantly," DuQuesne pointed out.
"Maybe but… sweet spirits of niter, you realize what this means?"
DuQuesne frowned. "You're ahead of me, I guess. What?"
"If this is a reaction mediated by something on the sub-ether, then the wire –"
Now DuQuesne saw it and finished with his friend, " – is being disassembled within a resonant cylinder of its own radius.Which implies…" Once more the sensation of looking into a light-colored mirror of himself, as Seaton's brows drew together in the same way he knew his own did. A moment later, both heads snapped up and gazed into each others' incredulous eyes. "Total liberation of the energy of matter," Seaton breathed, eyes wide.
"More than that," DuQuesne said with the same tone of disbelief. "Liberated as pure force, directed along the axis of the coated wire, driving that bath straight out of Earth orbit. If you'd coated something a different shape, or had different materials or irradiators… You could've blown this building to dust."
The two looked at each other with dawning grins. "Could've, but didn't…"
"… and if it's pure directed force …"
"… you know, that bath couldn't have taken that kind of acceleration if you put it at a single wire-sized point – or even one a lot bigger…"
"… acts on connected matter simultaneously? But that would imply…"
The two worked far into the night, all other things forgotten. Until, around one in the morning, Seaton stretched, glanced at the clock, and shot to his feet with a sulphurous oath that made DuQuesne blink; his friend almost never swore. "What's wrong, Rich?"
"Wrong? Oh just my stupid one-cylinder mind running off in a direction without ever thinking about whether it had something else to do. I am doomed, Marc. Absolutely DOOMED."
DuQuesne winced. "Oh-oh. You had a dinner date with Dorothy?"
"For six o'clock. I'm sunk without a trace. She's never going to –"
"If she was ever serious about you, she'll have to. She's got to know what you're like by now."
Seaton looked agonized. "Maybe, but…"
"No buts. Waste of your time, chum. Look, it's too late to call now. Let's go back to the apartment and get some rest. Then, bright and early tomorrow, you go and buy out the biggest flower shop you can find and bring it over to her right away."
"But what if –"
"Dr. Seaton," DuQuesne said with a sigh and a smile, "why worry about theoreticals when you can determine the actuality? Rest first, face your doom later."
Worried as he was about his potential loss of a fiancee, Seaton couldn't quite restrain a snort of laughter. "Fine, you win, Blackie." He looked around the lab as he picked up his coat. "And if anything would be a good enough excuse, I guess this would be it."
"Amen to that, brother," DuQuesne said, following his friend out. "Amen to that."
"An excellent Denouement. Are we ready to really enter the main phase now?"
"Preparing all parameters for the main sequences, yes. Preparatory time and effort, another couple of months for your time."
"Adventures about to start! I can hardly wait!"
"I know. But for this one, we both have to. But don't worry, I'll let you know when things are getting close."
"Good Lord, Richard, it's huge!" Dorothy Vaneman looked with awe up at the immense battleship-gray hull that curved up and away into the sky, seeming to lean out over them ready to fall over at any minute. "I thought this was supposed to be a test vehicle, a little thing!"
"Well, Miss Vaneman, neither of us are particularly small, so the ship's got to fit our needs," DuQuesne said with a smile.
"I suppose you have a point, Dr. DuQuesne – and didn't I tell you to call me Dot or Dorothy?"
"Sorry. I tend to be formal, especially here at work."
"She does look pretty big from here, I have to admit that, Dot my love, but she's actually not much bigger than she absolutely has to be. You see, we're not just testing one thing, but about 'leventy-dozen different things all in one. Most of 'em have been tested some in the lab, but there's nothing like a real field test. And some of these things, believe you me, you don't want field-tested anywhere near anything you want kept intact."
Dorothy nodded. "I remember you describing what could happen if you liberated the energy of just a small amount of copper the wrong way. Terrifying! But still…"
DuQuesne chuckled. "You know, Dorothy, I think we both still get fooled by that oh-poor-little-me routine. You're right, there's more to it than that. Kinnison –"
"That's Commodore Roderick K. Kinnison to you, Doctor DuQuesne." The rough voice held an amused tone that removed – slightly – the edge of the rebuke. "Getting ready to blab government secrets to the lady?"
"I'd hardly understand anything important even if they did, sir, and they're close-mouthed as anything off the base."
"And if I believe that wide-eyed innocent look, I should retire right now. You understand a lot of this pretty well, is my bet."
Dorothy flushed – something that with her complexion made her look prettier rather than, as with some unfortunates, merely blotchy or feverish – and shook her head. "Well, the principles – the very basic principles – maybe, but the numbers all go right over my head."
"Mmm-hm." Kinnison still looked skeptical. "In any case, you're right about the XSS-1 being a lot bigger than you might have expected. I'm guessing Seaton at least told you about the night I invited them all down here, and why?" At her nod, he continued, "Well, the wonder twins here," he grinned at the double wince, "have been cranking out potential miracles from their lab at breakneck pace ever since they've been here, and despite best efforts, we've got good reason to believe at least three different organizations have a whiff of what's going on. So any tests need to be done far enough away that no one – but no one! – can detect them. The last thing we need is a corporation like Steel or one of the nationalist groups getting enough of a hint to start building their own superweapons."
"Of course, that's only a problem if they can get some of this 'X', right?" Dorothy asked.
Seaton glanced at her. "You're hitting close to the mark there. It's not impossible to do it without any 'X', at least in theory, but in practice… I dunno. It's sure as heck a lot easier with 'X', and will stay that way until we've got a lot more experience with this sub-ether stuff."
DuQuesne nodded. "But that turns the problem around on us. So far the only 'X' we know of is what Rich got out of that one batch of refined ore. We're searching for more, but if we get too obvious about what we're looking for, it's going to be a flare-lit tip-off that there's something big to be found there. And our best guess right now is that the X metal came in on a meteor; that's why we haven't found a trace of it in other platinum or gold deposits so far. So –"
"—One thing we plan on doing is a little search for heavy-metal meteors or something of that sort that may contain X."
Dorothy's eyes narrowed. "Just how long is this trip supposed to last, Richard Seaton?"
Oh boy, she's caught him now.
"Don't 'well' me."
"The mission is currently listed as 'indefinite duration'," Kinnison said, breaking into the confrontation. "Which means, practically speaking, that we expect it will last a week or two, but could be a couple of months."
"A couple of –"
Seaton took her gently by the shoulders, with a glance at the others. DuQuesne nodded and withdrew, Commodore Kinnison following, as Seaton began, "Full stop, gorgeous. I know this isn't a bed of roses, but…"
Kinnison glanced over – and slightly up – at DuQuesne as they walked. "Noticed you don't have lady visitors."
DuQuesne raised an eyebrow. "Any of your business?"
The uniformed shoulders shrugged. "In a way, yes. Married men, or ones with serious relationships, tend to be more stable. On the other hand, unmarried ones can afford to risk more. Ones that have… other issues can be problem, if I – as the commanding officer – don't know about the issues."
"So this is your attempt at subtly asking if my preference runs in the other direction."
Kinnison's face reddened. On him, unfortunately, it was blotchy. "Well… I wouldn't have –"
"Skip it. No, I don't. I … Okay, you want my issue? I'm just not good about approaching people. And I have a lot more important things to worry about than learning how, at least at the moment. Plus… haven't met the right girl, really. Dorothy's a swell girl, and I'm glad Rich has found someone who's worth his time. But she's not quite my type – which is a good thing, I'd hate to either envy Rich or end up cutting in on him without even meaning to – and, well, I'm picky."
Kinnison smiled and lit a cigarette, drawing the smoke in slowly and sending a ring up against the rim of sky visible around the XSS-1. "Actually, that was about what I figured. I just had to make sure."
"You don't have a problem with –"
"Gays? Not a one. As long as they don't have a problem with it. We've come a long way, but there's still people that feel guilty for 'being that way', and others that think there's something inherently wrong. If I know what I'm dealing with, though, I can usually de-fuse it."
That made sense. DuQuesne knew he wasn't perfect there; his father Pierre had drilled his own beliefs of right, wrong, and natural into his son, and while DuQuesne had mostly managed to dig them out, the gut reactions could still ambush him at the wrong moment.
He looked back at Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman. It looked like they were talking rather than arguing, so – with luck – this wouldn't blow up in their faces. He knew Seaton wouldn't drop the project, but if Dorothy Vaneman was upset, Seaton's efficiency would go to just about one notch above absolute zero.
"Given everything you were talking about, sir," DuQuesne said finally, "we'd better launch soon."
"Sooner than you think. I was coming down to give you the directives." He put a long sealed envelope in DuQuesne's hand. "You are to launch the XSS-1 no later than seven days from now."
"Seven days? Great holy jumping –" DuQuesne turned and headed back at a run. "Rich! Dorothy! Sorry to break in, but," he grinned devilishly and saw Richard cringe, "I've got something to really get you going, Dorothy."
Oh, so in the next day or so we'll get the launch!
That is the projection.
Adversaries? I noticed you mentioned Steel. Any others?
Now, now, didn't you say you wanted to just watch the action unfold? Why ask for spoilers?
A snort. All right, I suppose you're correct. But if I don't miss my guess, something has to happen in their first voyage.
We shall see. I'm saying nothing.
The problem with an artificial universe is that it would justify paranoia. The universe IS out to get you.