In the early part of the Twenty Second Century, Dr. Richard Arcot, hailed as "the greatest living physicist," and Robert Morey, his brilliant mathematical assistant, discovered the so-called "molecular motion drive," which utilized the random energy of heat to produce useful motion.
John Fuller, designing engineer, helped the two men to build a ship which used the drive in order to have a weapon to seek out and capture the mysterious Air Pirate whose robberies were ruining Transcontinental Airways.
The Pirate, Wade, was a brilliant but neurotic chemist who had discovered, among other things, the secret of invisibility. Cured of his instability by modern psychomedical techniques, he was hired by Arcot to help build an interplanetary vessel to go to Venus.
The Venusians proved to be a humanoid race of people who used telepathy for communication. Although they were similar to Earthmen, their blue blood and double thumbs made them enough different to have caused distrust and racial friction, had not both planets been drawn together in a common bond of defense by the passing of the Black Star.
The Black Star, Nigra, was a dead, burned-out sun surrounded by a planetary system very much like our own. But these people had been forced to use their science to produce enough heat and light to stay alive in the cold, black depths of interstellar space. There was nothing evil or menacing in their attack on the Solar System; they simply wanted a star that gave off light and heat. So they attacked, not realizing that they were attacking beings equal in intelligence to themselves.
They were at another disadvantage, too. The Nigrans had spent long millennia fighting their environment and had had no time to fight among themselves, so they knew nothing of how to wage a war. The Earthmen and Venusians knew only too well, since they had a long history of war on each planet.
Inevitably, the Nigrans were driven back to the Black Star.1
The war was over. And things became dull. And the taste of adventure still remained on the tongues of Arcot, Wade, and Morey.
Three men sat around a table which was littered with graphs, sketches of mathematical functions, and books of tensor formulae. Beside the table stood a Munson-Bradley integraph calculator which one of the men was using to check some of the equations he had already derived. The results they were getting seemed to indicate something well above and beyond what they had expected.
And anything that surprised the team of Arcot, Wade, and Morey was surprising indeed.
The intercom buzzed, interrupting their work.
Dr. Richard Arcot reached over and lifted the switch. "Arcot speaking."
The face that flashed on the screen was businesslike and determined. "Dr. Arcot, Mr. Fuller is here. My orders are to check with you on all visitors."
Arcot nodded. "Send him up. But from now on, I'm not in to anyone but my father or the Interplanetary Chairman or the elder Mr. Morey. If they come, don't bother to call, just send 'em up. I will not receive calls for the next ten hours. Got it?"
"You won't be bothered, Dr. Arcot."
Arcot cut the circuit and the image collapsed.
Less than two minutes later, a light flashed above the door. Arcot touched the release, and the door slid aside. He looked at the man entering and said, with mock coldness:
"If it isn't the late John Fuller. What did you do—take a plane? It took you an hour to get here from Chicago."
Fuller shook his head sadly. "Most of the time was spent in getting past your guards. Getting to the seventy-fourth floor of the Transcontinental Airways Building is harder than stealing the Taj Mahal." Trying to suppress a grin, Fuller bowed low. "Besides, I think it would do your royal highness good to be kept waiting for a while. You're paid a couple of million a year to putter around in a lab while honest people work for a living. Then, if you happen to stub your toe over some useful gadget, they increase your pay. They call you scientists and spend the resources of two worlds to get you anything you want—and apologize if they don't get it within twenty-four hours.
"No doubt about it; it will do your majesties good to wait."
With a superior smile, he seated himself at the table and shuffled calmly through the sheets of equations before him.
Arcot and Wade were laughing, but not Robert Morey. With a sorrowful expression, he walked to the window and looked out at the hundreds of slim, graceful aircars that floated above the city.
"My friends," said Morey, almost tearfully, "I give you the great Dr. Arcot. These countless machines we see have come from one idea of his. Just an idea, mind you! And who worked it into mathematical form and made it calculable, and therefore useful? I did!
"And who worked out the math for the interplanetary ships? I did! Without me they would never have been built!" He turned dramatically, as though he were playing King Lear. "And what do I get for it?" He pointed an accusing finger at Arcot. "What do I get? He is called 'Earth's most brilliant physicist', and I, who did all the hard work, am referred to as 'his mathematical assistant'." He shook his head solemnly. "It's a hard world."
At the table, Wade frowned, then looked at the ceiling. "If you'd make your quotations more accurate, they'd be more trustworthy. The news said that Arcot was the ' System's most brilliant physicist', and that you were the 'brilliant mathematical assistant who showed great genius in developing the mathematics of Dr. Arcot's new theory'." Having delivered his speech, Wade began stoking his pipe.
Fuller tapped his fingers on the table. "Come on, you clowns, knock it off and tell me why you called a hardworking man away from his drafting table to come up to this play room of yours. What have you got up your sleeve this time?"
"Oh, that's too bad," said Arcot, leaning back comfortably in his chair. "We're sorry you're so busy. We were thinking of going out to see what Antares, Betelguese, or Polaris looked like at close range. And, if we don't get too bored, we might run over to the giant model nebula in Andromeda, or one of the others. Tough about your being busy; you might have helped us by designing the ship and earned your board and passage. Tough." Arcot looked at Fuller sadly.
Fuller's eyes narrowed. He knew Arcot was kidding, but he also knew how far Arcot would go when he was kidding—and this sounded like he meant it. Fuller said: "Look, teacher, a man named Einstein said that the velocity of light was tops over two hundred years ago, and nobody's come up with any counter evidence yet. Has the Lord instituted a new speed law?"
"Oh, no," said Wade, waving his pipe in a grand gesture of importance. "Arcot just decided he didn't like that law and made a new one himself."
"Now wait a minute!" said Fuller. "The velocity of light is a property of space!"
Arcot's bantering smile was gone. "Now you've got it, Fuller. The velocity of light, just as Einstein said, is a property of space. What happens if we change space?"
Fuller blinked. "Change space? How?"
Arcot pointed toward a glass of water sitting nearby. "Why do things look distorted through the water? Because the light rays are bent. Why are they bent? Because as each wave front moves from air to water, it slows down. The electromagnetic and gravitational fields between those atoms are strong enough to increase the curvature of the space between them. Now, what happens if we reverse that effect?"
"Oh," said Fuller softly. "I get it. By changing the curvature of the space surrounding you, you could get any velocity you wanted. But what about acceleration? It would take years to reach those velocities at any acceleration a man could stand."
Arcot shook his head. "Take a look at the glass of water again. What happens when the light comes out of the water? It speeds up again instantaneously. By changing the space around a spaceship, you instantaneously change the velocity of the ship to a comparable velocity in that space. And since every particle is accelerated at the same rate, you wouldn't feel it, any more than you'd feel the acceleration due to gravity in free fall."
Fuller nodded slowly. Then, suddenly, a light gleamed in his eyes. "I suppose you've figured out where you're going to get the energy to power a ship like that?"
"He has," said Morey. "Uncle Arcot isn't the type to forget a little detail like that."
"Okay, give," said Fuller.
Arcot grinned and lit up his own pipe, joining Wade in an attempt to fill the room with impenetrable fog.
"All right," Arcot began, "we needed two things: a tremendous source of power and a way to store it.
"For the first, ordinary atomic energy wouldn't do. It's not controllable enough and uranium isn't something we could carry by the ton. So I began working with high-density currents.
"At the temperature of liquid helium, near absolute zero, lead becomes a nearly perfect conductor. Back in nineteen twenty, physicists had succeeded in making a current flow for four hours in a closed circuit. It was just a ring of lead, but the resistance was so low that the current kept on flowing. They even managed to get six hundred amperes through a piece of lead wire no bigger than a pencil lead.
"I don't know why they didn't go on from there, but they didn't. Possibly it was because they didn't have the insulation necessary to keep down the corona effect; in a high-density current, the electrons tend to push each other sideways out of the wire.
"At any rate, I tried it, using lux metal as an insulator around the wire."
"Hold it!" Fuller interrupted. "What, may I ask, is lux metal?"
"That was Wade's idea," Arcot grinned. "You remember those two substances we found in the Nigran ships during the war?"
"Sure," said Fuller. "One was transparent and the other was a perfect reflector. You said they were made of light—photons so greatly condensed that they were held together by their gravitational fields."
"Right. We called them light-metal. But Wade said that was too confusing. With a specific gravity of 103.5, light-metal was certainly not a light metal! So Wade coined a couple of words. Lux is the Latin for light, so he named the transparent one lux and the reflecting one relux."
"It sounds peculiar," Fuller observed, "but so does every coined word when you first hear it. Go on with your story."
Arcot relit his pipe and went on. "I put a current of ten thousand amps through a little piece of lead wire, and that gave me a current density of 1010 amps per square inch.
"Then I started jacking up the voltage, and modified the thing with a double-polarity field somewhat similar to the molecular motion field except that it works on a sub-nucleonic level. As a result, about half of the lead fed into the chamber became contraterrene lead! The atoms just turned themselves inside out, so to speak, giving us an atom with positrons circling a negatively charged nucleus. It even gave the neutrons a reverse spin, converting them into antineutrons.
"Result: total annihilation of matter! When the contraterrene lead atoms met the terrene lead atoms, mutual annihilation resulted, giving us pure energy.
"Some of this power can be bled off to power the mechanism itself; the rest is useful energy. We've got all the power we need—power, literally by the ton."
Fuller said nothing; he just looked dazed. He was well beginning to believe that these three men could do the impossible and do it to order.
"The second thing," Arcot continued, "was, as I said, a way to store the energy so that it could be released as rapidly or as slowly as we needed it.
"That was Morey's baby. He figured it would be possible to use the space-strain apparatus to store energy. It's an old method; induction coils, condensers, and even gravity itself are storing energy by straining space. But with Morey's apparatus we could store a lot more.
"A torus-shaped induction coil encloses all its magnetic field within it; the torus, or 'doughnut' coil, has a perfectly enclosed magnetic field. We built an enclosed coil, using Morey's principle, and expected to store a few watts of power in it to see how long we could hold it.
"Unfortunately, we made the mistake of connecting it to the city power lines, and it cost us a hundred and fifty dollars at a quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour. We blew fuses all over the place. After that, we used the relux plate generator.
"At any rate, the gadget can store power and plenty of it, and it can put it out the same way."
Arcot knocked the ashes out of his pipe and smiled at Fuller. "Those are the essentials of what we have to offer. We give you the job of figuring out the stresses and strains involved. We want a ship with a cruising radius of a thousand million light years."
"Yes, sir! Right away, sir! Do you want a gross or only a dozen?" Fuller asked sarcastically. "You sure believe in big orders! And whence cometh the cold cash for this lovely dream of yours?"
"That," said Morey darkly, "is where the trouble comes in. We have to convince Dad. As President of Transcontinental Airways, he's my boss, but the trouble is, he's also my father. When he hears that I want to go gallivanting off all over the Universe with you guys, he is very likely to turn thumbs down on the whole deal. Besides, Arcot's dad has a lot of influence around here, too, and I have a healthy hunch he won't like the idea, either."
"I rather fear he won't," agreed Arcot gloomily.
A silence hung over the room that felt almost as heavy as the pall of pipe smoke the air conditioners were trying frantically to disperse.
The elder Mr. Morey had full control of their finances. A ship that would cost easily hundreds of millions of dollars was well beyond anything the four men could get by themselves. Their inventions were the property of Transcontinental, but even if they had not been, not one of the four men would think of selling them to another company.
Finally, Wade said: "I think we'll stand a much better chance if we show them a big, spectacular exhibition; something really impressive. We'll point out all the advantages and uses of the apparatus. Then we'll show them complete plans for the ship. They might consent."
"They might," replied Morey smiling. "It's worth a try, anyway. And let's get out of the city to do it. We can go up to my place in Vermont. We can use the lab up there for all we need. We've got everything worked out, so there's no need to stay here.
"Besides, I've got a lake up there in which we can indulge in a little atavism to the fish stage of evolution."
"Good enough," Arcot agreed, grinning broadly. "And we'll need that lake, too. Here in the city it's only eighty-five because the aircars are soaking up heat for their molecular drive, but out in the country it'll be in the nineties."
"To the mountains, then! Let's pack up!"