Monday, October 29, 2012

By the Sound of It

“I wish I could do something to help, Iggy.” said Lizzy, pushing strands of dark hair from her glasses with a forefinger.
Watching the appraisers crawl all over the property made Iggy want to scream. The creditors wanted everything, and then some. Besides the agents of banks, FBI agents scanned and poked through every part of the spaceport as well. The feds refused to explain to him exactly what they wanted. Iggy knew it couldn’t be anything listed in the warrant. There were no illegal weapons or drugs on the site.
“There isn’t anything you can do. Had I known just how much we were in hock, I would have quit Caltech months ago. I guess that’s why my dad didn’t tell me.”
His father had somehow held the creditors at bay with a mix of minimum payments and promises of future profits, but with his death they flocked like vultures. Iggy knew his school days were behind him. He expected to lose Lizzy, too, however much she said otherwise. She would return to classes and he would be in Utah. Surely he wasn’t the only guy who could appreciate her personal qualities and her understated good looks – not to mention her value as a study partner. Someone, would steal her away.
“You should have let me know right away what was going on,” she chided, “instead of just disappearing from campus and texting me three days later. I’d have flown here with you.”
“I needed to face the funeral few days alone. I can’t really explain why, but I had to. I do appreciate you being here now.”
Iggy ran his hand over the heat-resistant skin of Pogo, the spacecraft designed and largely built by his father. Black Sky Adventures was painted in cursive on the fuselage. Pogo was in small print. “I hate losing Pogo the most,” he said. “My dad put so much of himself into it. He said it would make us rich.”
“At least you got to fly it. That’s something,” said Lizzy.
“I flew in it. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat on one flight when it still was named Sky Biscuit and never really took the controls.”
“It’s still more than most people ever will do. Any idea when tour flights will be allowed again?”
“No. The big outfits are still flying paying passengers, of course – even Meteor Spacelines, and it was their damn ship that broke up on re-entry last year. The big companies just moved their launch sites outside FAA jurisdiction. We couldn’t afford to do that. No flights, no money. It’s why we’re broke. The creditors agents already flew out The Forklift yesterday. That’s the conventional jet that carries Pogo up to 15 kilometers altitude. Pogo then cuts loose and goes the rest of the way to space by itself.”
“Why Pogo?” she asked. “You said the name used to be SkyBiscuit.”
“One of my dad’s little jokes. All our flights over 100k, the boundary of space as conventionally defined, have been purely ballistic arcs. We don’t go into orbit. But the big money is taking passengers all the way around the world. That is much more problematic. You need more thrust and then you need better heat shielding because of the higher re-entry velocity. Building a passenger ship capable of orbit was outside our budget. My dad thought there was another way.”
“What way?”
“The plan was a business secret, but I guess it doesn’t matter now. There is an alternative to standard orbit that was proposed way back in the 1940s by Eugen Sanger. He suggested that a spaceplane could skip atop the atmosphere like a rock across the surface of a pond. The speed would be lower and so the heat shielding requirements for the return would be lower, too. We still needed boost up our thrust, but not by as much.”
“So the ship is Pogo because it will bounce on the atmosphere like a pogo stick,” she said.
“Precisely. Well, not precisely because now it will never get the chance.”
“That explains the ship, but why did he name you Igor? Because you’re the lab assistant to his Frankenstein?”
Iggy forced a mile. “No that was my mom’s idea. It was my grandfather’s name.”
“One more question, though you don’t have to answer.”
“Why does the FBI think there are weapons and drugs here?” Lizzy asked. “Is it because of the lab explosion that killed your dad?”
“I don’t think so. They just needed an excuse for a warrant, so they made up that nonsense. Why wouldn’t I answer you? Do you think we’re drug smugglers?”
“Hey, don’t get defensive,” she said. “I’m just asking. So, why do you think the Feds are here?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Try me.”
“Ok. My dad had funny ideas toward the end about cold fusion, and he talked about them openly. Maybe he was just getting desperate and was grasping at straws. He had a lot of funny ideas about a lot of things. Some of them even worked. He’d drop the ones that didn’t after a while, so I learned not to argue with him, but to let him work things out for himself. So, I figured this was just his latest quirk, and he’d drop it eventually.”
“Cold fusion is nonsense – a 20th century pipe dream,” said Lizzy. “Surely the FBI can’t think your dad succeeded at it.”
“I’m not sure at all. Oh, I don’t believe in cold fusion either. Initiating thermonuclear hydrogen fusion requires temperatures of 100,000,000 degrees. You can’t do it with a room-temperature bottle of water and a household electric current. None of 20th century claims of results ever could be substantiated or replicated. But I think the Feds are checking anyway.”
“Crazy. Can you show me the space ship?” she asked, changing the subject. “I’ve never been inside one.”
“Yeah, sure. Until all the paperwork is processed, it’s still mine. Have you ever flown in one?”
“No. I can’t afford the ticket prices.”
“Do you want me to roll the stairway here?” he asked.
“Not unless you need it.”
Iggy hoisted himself through the open hatch into Pogo. He took Lizzy’s hand, and helped pull her inside. Out of long habit, he closed and secured the hatch behind them. The ceiling height was too low enough for either them us to stand upright. The spacecraft wobbled under their feet.
“It feels kind of flimsy. No offense,” she said.
“None taken, but it is not flimsy. It is lightweight. Not the same thing.”
“Only eight passenger seats?”
“Even eight passengers are a lot of weight to get into space.”
They entered the cockpit. Iggy sat in the co-pilot seat and let Lizzy sit in the pilot chair.
“I expected the panel to be more complex,” she said.
“It doesn’t need to be. The computer handles the whole flight unless we override it. Any data we need shows up on the LED display.”
Iggy turned on the interior power. The LED and panel lights lit up.
“Cool. Did you check for radiation?” she asked.
“What? Where? In here?”
“No, in the lab debris. If you dad really was playing with cold fusion, maybe he got his hands on deuterium-tritium.”
“Heavy hydrogen?”
“Yes. It would explain the FBI’s concerns. And D-T can burn explosively if ignited, so it might even explain the accident. There would be radioactive traces from the tritium.
“Interesting thought. No, I didn’t check for radioactivity.”
“Is what we’re doing dangerous?” she asked. “This ship isn’t fueled, is it?”

“Yes, it is fueled, but it’s not especially dangerous. In fact, I’m not even sure the engine will work. My dad rebuilt the whole engine while I was away. I looked back there and it’s screwy as hell.”
“What’s screwy about it?”
“Well, it’s always been a hybrid engine, with a solid fuel and a liquid oxidizer. It still sort-of looks like one, but the liquid oxygen tank has been replaces by a smaller pressurized tank of gaseous O2. I don’t see how it can hold enough to keep the fuel burning all the way to 100 klicks. In the space created by the smaller tank he added something that doesn’t seem to do anything but emit a range of sound waves, mostly very low frequency.”
“What frequencies?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to test it. I only know as much as I do from some very incomplete notes left by my dad, but they are more about how to assemble the device than about what it does.”
“Why would a sound be part of the engine??”
“Beats me. My dad thought outside the box.”
“She pointed at the LED display where a virtual button was marked “sonics.”
“Would this tell us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Lizzy touched the LED screen.
Iggy and Lizzie slammed back into their seats as flame roared out the back of Pogo. Iggy grappled at the control stick and lifted the nose before Pogo reached the end of the tarmac. He turned control to the computer as he felt himself losing consciousness, even though he was unsure what it would do. For both Lizzy and Iggy, the world went away. When they regained consciousness they were in black sky. The engine no longer was firing.
Iggy quickly called up the ship’s stats.
Lizzy coughed and wheezed. “Do you ever get any repeat customers?” she croaked.
“It’s not supposed to do that.”
“No shit.”
“No fertilizer of any kind. We don’t take off from the ground. We airdrop.
“What’s our altitude?”
“Nearing 900 kilometers.”
“I’d say your dad got the thrust he wanted.”
“I wish he had told me.”
“Not as much as I do. The button said ‘sonics,’ not ‘shoot your ass into space.’ Your ship has lousy labels. We’re not stuck up here are we?” Lizzy asked.
“The computer chose a ballistic parabola, because that’s what it always has done. I guess my dad didn’t get around to upgrading the software for the atmospheric skipping. We should reach apogee at about 2400 klicks and then drop back toward the atmosphere.”
“Not really. We’re too high. We’ll accelerate too much on the way down. We’ll burn up on re-entry.”
“What if we try that atmospheric skipping?”
“No good. Our trajectory is all wrong. We have a thrust in the maneuvering jets, but enough to matter,” said Iggy. “We need the main engine to do that.”
“Do we have fuel left?” she asked.
“The readings say so. The computer shut the engine down. We didn’t run out of fuel.”
“So fire the main engine.”
“Nothing. The computer won’t give up control.”
“Hit that sonics button again.”
He did. “Nothing.”
“So we’re going to die?”
“Unless you come up with a great idea in about 15 minutes.”
She closed her eyes and frowned. “Didn’t some of the cold fusion nuts claim to collapse bubbles of D-T in acetone by using sound waves?” she asked.
“None of those experiments ever were repeatable.”
“But maybe they weren’t repeatable because they overlooked some minor detail the second time. What if the researchers really weren’t frauds or self-delusional? What if, every now and then, one of the experiments did work? Maybe your dad figured out what was different about the ones that worked from the ones that didn’t. Suppose he modified the fuel so that D-T bubbles collapse in it from sound waves. The D-T fuses – not enough to blow us to bits but enough to thrust us into space.”
“It sounds pretty unlikely.”
“Here we are,” she answered.
“Point taken. But we’re still going to die. We’re descending by the way.”
“Your father must have figured a way to get back down safely.”
They both went silent and stared out the window at the spectacular view. The earth loomed ever larger.
“I have an idea,” said Iggy. “but it will work only if everything you said is right.”
“Then I want half the intellectual property rights when we reverse engineer everything.”
“You’re negotiating with me? Now?”
“Fine, fine.”
“What’s you plan?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing. You’re right: my dad would not have planned a one way trip. Let the computer do its thing.”
“But the autopilot didn’t do that skip thing you talked about.”
“My dad probably didn’t want to test everything at once. The first step would be just an engine test. Maybe it will fire the engine at the right moment.
“What if it doesn’t?”
“Then it’s been a pleasure knowing you.”
They remained silent as Pogo accelerated downward. Readings showed a rise in skin temperature indicating atmospheric friction. Maneuvering thrusters fired and turned the nose downward.
“Is that a good sign?” Lizzy asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe the computer is just following standard procedure in past flights without taking account of our higher speed this time.”
“You’re so reassuring.”
Pogo rattled and shook with increasing violence. Iggy watched the temperature continue to rise. The cabin was growing warm, too.
“Are we supposed to spark?” she asked.
“We’re ablating,” he said.
“I know what we’re doing. Are we supposed to be doing it?”
“We’ll find out in a couple minutes. That’s how long we have until the skin peels away if nothing else changes,” he said.
  Pogo’s nose turned up. The engine fired in a series of short teeth-rattling bursts.
“The oxidizer tank is dumping its contents. I think the idea is just to provide a dense enough medium in the combustion chamber for the sound waves,” he said.
“Explain it to my dentist. Your spaceship sucks!”
“Isn’t it our spaceship?”
“No, just the intellectual rights are ours. The ship is yours.”
The cabin temperature rose from toasty to sweltering.
“We’re almost out of fuel,” said Iggy.
“Is that good or bad?”
“The good news is that we’re down to Mach 3. The bad news is that we’re still going Mach 3.”
The burn of the last dregs of fuel lasted only seconds but it cut velocity to Mach 2.
With its wings firmly biting air, Pogo executed a series of wide sweeping arcs.
“What are we doing?” she asked.
“We’re bleeding off speed. Oh crap!”
“Now what?”
“The autopilot shut off.”
“It failed?”
“I don’t think so. I think my dad intended to fly by hand the rest of the way down.”
“So do it!”
“But down where? We’re over the Pacific. We’re gliding without power, and if I turn I don’t think I can get back to the mainland.”
“Why would the computer aim at the Pacific? I don’t know. I didn’t program it! But the Forklift could retrieve Pogo from anywhere with a runway, so… Damn, we’re going to overshoot Hawaii.”
“Where then?”
“Maybe Midway Islands. The runways there should be empty.”
“I don’t suppose this thing floats in case you miss,” she said.
“Never tried it. I don’t want to try it.”
Pogo 1 continued to descend. An atoll appeared ahead.
“I think that’s it. I’ll try the runway on the smaller island up ahead.”
He tapped a command to the computer to lower landing gear.
“Are the gear down?” she asked.
“I hope so.”
Iggy’s stomach lurched as he increased his angle of descent.
“The water is awfully close, Iggy”
“We need every inch of that runway.”
The island slipped beneath them. The tires screeched on pavement.
“I guess the gear came down,” he said.
“I am braking.”
“The runway is too short!”
As they reached the edge of the runway Iggy released the brakes and pulled back on the stick. Pogo went momentarily airborne, but then stalled, bellied into the surf, and settled into sand in a meter of water just off the beach of Eastern Island. Steam rose from the water roiling around the fuselage. Pogo split open and sea water rushed in.
“I guess I should have used the runway on the bigger island.”
“We’re alive” Lizzy said. “Why isn’t anyone rushing to the crash?” she asked.
“Midway used to be a military base, but now the islands are a wildlife preserve.”
“You mean we’re here alone?”
“There might be an ornithologist or two visiting Sand Island – that’s the big one. I’m sure we were radar-tracked in Hawaii though, so someone will show up. Don’t say I never take you anywhere.”
“I want an air conditioned hotel room on Waikiki.”
“I’m broke.”
“I’m not. Besides, we can afford it. Do you know what this tech is worth? By this time next year we can buy the hotel.”
Iggy decided not to question the “we.”

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