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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesUnwise Child - Chapter 11
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Unwise Child - Chapter 11 Post by :traffic-tart Category :Long Stories Author :Randall Garrett Date :May 2012 Read :1967

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Unwise Child - Chapter 11

"What I want to know," said Lieutenant Keku, "is, what kind of ship is this?"

Mike the Angel chuckled, and Lieutenant Mellon, the Medical Officer, grinned rather shyly. But young Ensign Vaneski looked puzzled.

"What do you mean, sir?" he asked the huge Hawaiian.

They were sitting over coffee in the officers' wardroom. Captain Quill, First Officer Jeffers, and Lieutenant Commander von Liegnitz were on the bridge, and Dr. Fitzhugh and Leda Crannon were down below, giving Snookums lessons.

Mike looked at Lieutenant Keku, waiting for him to answer Vaneski's question.

"What do I mean? Just what I said, Mister Vaneski. I want to know what kind of ship this is. It is obviously not a warship, so we can forget that classification. It is not an expeditionary ship; we're not outfitted for exploratory work. Is it a passenger vessel, then? No, because Dr. Fitzhugh and Miss Crannon are listed as 'civilian technical advisers' and are therefore legally part of the crew. I'm wondering if it might be a cargo vessel, though."

"Sure it is," said Ensign Vaneski. "That brain in Cargo Hold One is cargo, isn't it?"

"I'm not certain," Keku said thoughtfully, looking up at the overhead, as if the answer might be etched there in the metal. "Since it is built in as an intrinsic part of the ship, I don't know if it can be counted as cargo or not." He brought his gaze down to focus on Mike. "What do you think, Commander?"

Before Mike the Angel could answer, Ensign Vaneski broke in with: "But the brain is going to be removed when we get to our destination, isn't it? That makes this a cargo ship!" There was a note of triumph in his voice.

Lieutenant Keku's gaze didn't waver from Mike's face, nor did he say a word. For a boot ensign to interrupt like that was an impoliteness that Keku chose to ignore. He was waiting for Mike's answer as though Vaneski had said nothing.

But Mike the Angel decided he might as well play along with Keku's gag and still answer Vaneski. As a full commander, he could overlook Vaneski's impoliteness to his superiors without ignoring it as Keku was doing.

"Ah, but the brain _won't be unloaded, Mister Vaneski," he said mildly. "The ship will be _dismantled_--which is an entirely different thing. I'm afraid you can't call it a cargo ship on those grounds."

Vaneski didn't say anything. His face had gone red and then white, as though he'd suddenly realized he'd committed a _faux pas_. He nodded his head a little, to show he understood, but he couldn't seem to find his voice.

To cover up Vaneski's emotional dilemma, Mike addressed the Medical Officer. "What do you think, Mister Mellon?"

Mellon cleared his throat. "Well--it seems to me," he said in a dry, serious tone, "that this is really a medical ship."

Mike blinked. Keku raised his eyebrows. Vaneski swallowed and jerked his eyes away from Mike's face to look at Mellon--but still he didn't say anything.

"Elucidate, my dear Doctor," said Mike with interest.

"I diagnose it as a physician," Mellon said in the same dry, earnest tone. "Snookums, we have been told, is too dangerous to be permitted to remain on Earth. I take this to mean that he is potentially capable of doing something that would either harm the planet itself or a majority--if not all--of the people on it." He picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip. Nobody interrupted him.

"Snookums has, therefore," he continued, "been removed from Earth in order to protect the health of that planet, just as one would remove a potentially malignant tumor from a human body.

"This is a medical ship. Q.E.D." And only then did he smile.

"Aw, now...." Vaneski began. Then he shut his mouth again.

With an inward smile, Mike realized that Ensign Vaneski had been taking seriously an argument that was strictly a joke.

"Mister Mellon," Mike said, "you win." He hadn't realized that Mellon's mind could work on that level.

"Hold," said Lieutenant Keku, raising a hand. "I yield to no one in my admiration for the analysis given by our good doctor; indeed, my admiration knows no bounds. But I insist we hear from Commander Gabriel before we adjourn."

"Not me," Mike said, shaking his head. "I know when I'm beaten." He'd been going to suggest that the _Brainchild was a training ship, from Snookums' "learning" periods, but that seemed rather obvious and puerile now.

He glanced at his watch, saw the time, and stood up. "Excuse me, gentlemen; I have things to do." He had an appointment to talk to Leda Crannon, but he had no intention of broadcasting it.

As he closed the wardroom door, he heard Ensign Vaneski's voice saying: "I _still say this should be classified as a cargo ship."

Mike sighed as he strode on down the companionway. The ensign was, of course, absolutely correct--which was the sad part about it, really. Oh well, what the hell.

Leda Crannon had agreed to have coffee with Mike in the office suite she shared with Dr. Fitzhugh. Mike had had one cup in the officers' wardroom, but even if he'd had a dozen he'd have been willing to slosh down a dozen more to talk to Leda Crannon. It was not, he insisted to himself, that he was in love with the girl, but she had intelligence and personality in addition to her striking beauty.

Furthermore, she had given Mike the Angel a dressing-down that had been quite impressive. She had not at all cared for the remarks he had made when Snookums was being loaded aboard--patting him on the head and asking him his age, for instance--and had told him so in no uncertain terms. Mike, feeling sheepish and knowing he was guilty, had accepted the tongue-lashing and tendered an apology.

And she had smiled and said: "All right. Forget it. I'm sorry I got mad."

He knew he wasn't the only man aboard who was interested in Leda. Jakob von Liegnitz, all Teutonic masterfulness and Old World suavity, had obviously made a favorable impression on her. Lew Mellon was often seen in deep philosophical discussions with her, his eyes never leaving her face and his earnest voice low and confidential. Both of them had known her longer than he had, since they'd both been stationed at Chilblains Base.

Mike the Angel didn't let either of them worry him. He had enough confidence in his own personality and abilities to be able to take his own tack no matter which way the wind blew.

Blithely opening the door of the office, Mike the Angel stepped inside with a smile on his lips.

"Ah, good afternoon, Commander Gabriel," said Dr. Morris Fitzhugh.

Mike kept the smile on his face. "Leda here?"

Fitzhugh chuckled. "No. Some problems came up with Snookums. She'll be in session for an hour yet. She asked me to convey her apologies." He gestured toward the coffee urn. "But the coffee's all made, so you may as well have a cup."

Mike was thankful he had not had a dozen cups in the wardroom. "I don't mind if I do, Doctor." He sat down while Fitzhugh poured a cup.

"Cream? Sugar?"

"Black, thanks," Mike said.

There was an awkward silence for a few seconds while Mike sipped at the hot, black liquid. Then Mike said, "Dr. Fitzhugh, you said, at the briefing back on Earth, that Snookums knows too much about nuclear energy. Can you be more specific than that, or is it too hush-hush?"

Fitzhugh took out his briar and began filling it as he spoke. "We don't want this to get out to the general public, of course," he said thoughtfully, "but, as a ship's officer, you can be told. I believe some of your fellow officers know already, although we'd rather it wasn't discussed in general conversation, even among the officers."

Mike nodded wordlessly.

"Very well, then." Fitzhugh gave the tobacco a final shove with his thumb. "As a power engineer, you should be acquainted with the 'pinch effect,' eh?"

It was a rhetorical question. The "pinch effect" had been known for over a century. A jet of highly ionized gas, moving through a magnetic field of the proper structure, will tend to pinch down, to become narrower, rather than to spread apart, as a jet of ordinary gas does. As the science of magnetohydrodynamics had progressed, the effect had become more and more controllable, enabling scientists to force the nuclei of hydrogen, for instance, closer and closer together. At the end of the last century, the Bending Converter had almost wrecked the economy of the entire world, since it gave to the world a source of free energy. Sam Bending's "little black box" converted ordinary water into helium and oxygen and energy--plenty of energy. A Bending Converter could be built relatively cheaply and for small-power uses--such as powering a ship or automobile or manufacturing plant--could literally run on air, since the moisture content of ordinary air was enough to power the converter itself with plenty of power left over.

Overnight, all previous forms of power generation had become obsolete. Who would buy electric power when he could generate his own for next to nothing? Billions upon billions of dollars worth of generating equipment were rendered valueless. The great hydroelectric dams, the hundreds of steam turbines, the heavy-metal atomic reactors--all useless for power purposes. The value of the stock in those companies dropped to zero and stayed there. The value of copper metal fell like a bomb, with almost equally devastating results--for there was no longer any need for the millions of miles of copper cable that linked the power plants with the consumer.

The Depression of 1929-42 couldn't even begin to compare with The Great Depression of 1986-2000. Every civilized nation on Earth had been hit and hit hard. The resulting governmental collapses would have made the disaster even more complete had not the then Secretary General of the UN, Perrot of Monaco, grabbed the reins of government. Like the Americans Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, he had forced through unconstitutional bills and taken extra-constitutional powers. And, like those Americans, he had not done it for personal gain, but to preserve the society. He had not succeeded in preserving the old society, of course, but he had built, almost single-handedly, a world government--a new society on the foundations of the old.

All these thoughts ran through Mike the Angel's mind. He wondered if Snookums had discovered something that would be as much a disaster to the world economy as the Bending Converter had been.

Fitzhugh got out his miniature flame thrower and puffed his pipe alight. "Snookums," he said, "has discovered a method of applying the pinch effect to lithium hydride. It's a batch reaction rather than a flow reaction such as the Bending Converter uses. But it's as simple to build as a Bending Converter."

"Jesus," said Mike the Angel softly.

Lithium hydride. LiH. An atom of hydrogen to every atom of lithium. If a hydrogen nucleus is driven into the lithium nucleus with sufficient force, the results are simple:

Li^{7} + H^{1} --> 2He^{4} + energy

An atom of lithium-7 plus an atom of hydrogen-1 yields two atoms of helium-4 and plenty of energy. One gram of lithium hydride would give nearly fifty-eight kilowatt-hours of energy in one blast. A pound of the stuff would be the equivalent of nearly seven _tons of TNT.

In addition, it was a nice, clean bomb. Nothing but helium, radiation, and heat. In the early nineteen fifties, such a bomb had been constructed by surrounding the LiH with a fission bomb--the so-called "implosion" technique. But all that heavy metal around the central reaction created all kinds of radioactive residues which had a tendency to scatter death for hundreds of miles around.

Now, suppose a man had a pair of tweezers small enough to pick up a single molecule of lithium hydride and pinch the two nuclei together. Of course, the idea is ridiculous--that is, the tweezer part is. But if the pinch could be done in some other way....

Snookums had done it.

"Homemade atomic bombs in your back yard or basement lab," said Mike the Angel.

Fitzhugh nodded emphatically. "Exactly. We can't let that technique out until we've found a way to keep people from doing just that. The UN Government has inspection techniques that prevent anyone from building the conventional types of thermonuclear bombs, but not the pinch bomb."

Mike the Angel thought over what Dr. Fitzhugh had said. Then he said: "That's not all of it. Antarctica is isolated enough to keep that knowledge secret for a long time--at least until safeguards could be set up. Why take Snookums off Earth?"

"Snookums himself is dangerous," Fitzhugh said. "He has a built-in 'urge' to experiment--to get data. We can keep him from making experiments that we know will be dangerous by giving him the data, so that the urge doesn't operate. But if he's on the track of something totally new....

"Well, you can see what we're up against." He thoughtfully blew a cloud of smoke. "We think he may be on the track of the total annihilation of matter."

A dead silence hung in the air. The ultimate, the super-atomic bomb. Theoretically, the idea had been approached only in the assumption of contact between ordinary matter and anti-matter, with the two canceling each other completely to give nothing but energy. Such a bomb would be nearly fifty thousand times as powerful as the lithium-hydride pinch bomb. That much energy, released in a few millimicroseconds, would make the standard H-bomb look like a candle flame on a foggy night.

The LiH pinch bomb could be controlled. By using just a little of the stuff, it would be possible to limit the destruction to a neighborhood, or even a single block. A total-annihilation bomb would be much harder to control. The total annihilation of a single atom of hydrogen would yield over a thousandth of an erg, and matter just doesn't come in much smaller packages than that.

"You see," said Fitzhugh, "we _had to get him off Earth."

"Either that or stop him from experimenting," Mike said. "And I assume that wouldn't be good for Snookums."

"To frustrate Snookums would be to destroy all the work we have put into him. His circuits would tend to exceed optimum randomity, and that would mean, in human terms, that he would be insane--and therefore worthless. As a machine, Snookums is worth eighteen billion dollars. The information we have given him, plus the deductions and computations he has made from that information, is worth...." He shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? How can a price be put on knowledge?"

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