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The Gold of Galileo

As he neared the curve at one hundred and ten miles per hour, Marius “Doc” Griswell kept his foot hard on the accelerator. His sleek sports coupe whipped up a cloud of moonlit snow as it went off the blacktop, to smash head-on into the stone wall.

The police, hastily called, found no skid marks.


James Cardan shielded his eyes from the wintry sun, slammed the car door, took the morning paper from the rack by the variety store entrance, and read the headline:



Cardan paid for the paper, and, as he slid back behind the wheel, he glanced again at the front page. Separate from the main article was a familiar face, under the words: “Nuclear Scientist a Suicide?” Cardan, startled, skimmed the article:

“. . . famous atomic scientist, Marius ‘Doc’ Griswell . . . Director of Research for giant Hanwell Industries . . . died in an auto crash last night . . . considered a maverick for his theory that particle speed and position can be simultaneously determined . . . attempted to prove his theory with a huge ‘cold fusion’ reactor called the ‘asterator’ . . . keen analytical mind . . . much in demand lately to investigate the worldwide rash of nuclear accidents . . . ‘We will miss him,’ said Nobel prize winner, Dr. . . .”


Cardan, frowning, drove slowly across the tracks, past the big familiar sign “Research East,” then parked in the freshly snow-plowed lot, and went inside. He unlocked a door lettered, “James Cardan, President,” went through the outer office into his inner sanctum, tossed the paper on his desk, and hung his coat and hat in a small closet. He sat down, and, still frowning, took out a cigar.

Why should Doc Griswell commit suicide?

Cardan reread the article. The night had been clear, and Griswell knew the road; but there was no sign he had braked. Yet he had been in good health, respected, happily married, and highly paid by Hanwell Industries, whose president Eli Kenzie, was Doc’s personal friend.

Cardan groped for matches, lit his cigar, and sat back. Finally, he shook his head, looked at the headline, and carefully read the lead article. Two sentences stood out: “This explosion brings to six the unexplained nuclear blasts since the first at 3:26 p.m., September 29th, in the English Channel” . . . “as in the U.S. accident of November 9th, an explosion took place after the reactor had been shut down following an earlier alarm.” A list of unexplained nuclear accidents followed:

1)  9/29 U.K., 3:26 p.m., submarine

2)  10/24 China, 10:23 p.m., missile

3)  11/9 U.S.A., 7:17 a.m., reactor

4)  11/17 U.S.A., 9:19 a.m., missile

5)  11/26 France, 3:09 p.m., missile

6)  12/9 U.S.S.R., 6:02 p.m., reactor

Cardan at last folded the paper, and reluctantly turned to a problem he had put off in the hope that it might solve itself.

He had, during the start of what had looked like an impressive business expansion, hired people he expected to need later. The expansion had then evaporated, and now the need was to economize. Yet there was no one Cardan wanted to let go. And, as sure as day followed night, once he let them go, business would pick up, and he would have to scratch and scrabble to rehire them. But when would business pick up?

Scowling, Cardan unfolded the paper. Following the sports pages, the business headlines sprang up at him:






As Cardan knocked the ash off his cigar into the square glass ashtray on his desk, the phone rang. Grateful for the interruption, he picked it up, and a deep male voice said, “Jim?”

Cardan recognized Doc Griswell’s boss at Hanwell Industries, and cleared his throat. “Eli.”

“Have you heard about Doc?”

“I just read it in the paper.”

“I got it last night. I came in early, to think things over.”

“Why did he do it?”

“I—” Kenzie stopped, and began again. “You know, Doc thought a lot about that asterator project of his. I’m sorry, now, that . . .” His voice trailed off.

Cardan sat still, frowning.

Kenzie said, “I don’t want to tie men up in that project. But I think, out of respect for Doc . . . I’m making a mess of this, Jim . . . Look, would you be willing to take on Doc’s asterator? Don’t rush it. Look into it, see what you think. After all, Doc was a genius. Maybe a fresh set of minds . . . The device hasn’t produced yet, but, you know . . . fusion power . . . And if there’s anything in it, we’d be glad to give you a participation. We might even sell the whole thing to you for the right price. What do you say?”

Cardan set his cigar carefully in the ashtray.

“How much,” he said warily, “do you have in mind if we work on this for you?”


Out in the company lot there were now two cars and a third pulling in. A slender, dark-haired man got out and his sharp features, as he looked at the second car, registered annoyance. He glanced up, and suddenly grinned.

At an upper window, a blond athletically-built man grinned back, with a slightly rueful expression. It might be childish—it was childish—but he took pleasure in getting here ahead of Mac. Since Cardan got here early, the whole place tended to, as if somehow it were a question of status to be early.

Behind the blond man, the intercom buzzed. Cardan’s voice spoke inquiringly. “Don?”

Donovan said, “Right here.”

“Mac in yet?”

“He’s on the way up.”

“We’ve got a job to talk over.”

“Want me to tell him?”

“I’ll let him know.”


Cardan relit his cigar as Donovan and Maclane straightened from the newspaper looking grim.

“Is either of you,” Cardan asked, “familiar with what Doc was working on?”

Donovan shook his head. “Only vaguely.”

Maclane hesitated. “I’ve heard Doc’s argument. But it involves mathematics I don’t understand.”

“How did he expect to get ‘cold fusion’?”

“Doc argued that nuclei aren’t statistical abstractions, but have definite structures. He said that to fuse two nuclei, there ought to be an optimum approach based on their actual structures. He said our nuclear fusion program only considers high-energy approaches. He claimed to have the mathematics to show that in certain cases a low-energy approach should work.”

Donovan said, “Did he explain it?”

“Mostly by mathematics. The rough general picture I got was of electrical or magnetic fields, varied by computer according to nuclear location and attitude, rapidly bringing pairs of nuclei together. The advantage, if the method worked, was that there would be no plasma to wrestle with.”

Cardan sat back, frowning. “Did you see any apparatus to do this?”

“No. Doc quit talking once he had the asterator.”

Cardan described Kenzie’s phone call. “Since we need the work, I didn’t want to turn him down. But there’s something Kenzie is very carefully not mentioning.”

Maclane nodded. “We could be taking on a lot more than we bargained for. Doc wasn’t easy to understand. To give you an idea, he was criticized for suggesting that particle speed and position could be simultaneously determined. You’d think if that wasn’t what he meant, he’d have said so. But he acted sometimes as if he thought people deliberately misunderstood him, so why explain? It dawned on me finally that possibly that wasn’t what he was arguing. He could have meant that the particles would naturally interact with the fields, to come together somewhere in the apparatus, with this ‘optimum approach.’ We wouldn’t necessarily know their speed and position. But Doc never cleared up the point. There are bound to be other things he never explained about the asterator. It may be a nightmarish job to begin where Doc left off.”

Donovan shrugged. “How can we lose? If the method works, we buy a participation. If not, remember, Kenzie’s still paying us.”

Cardan studied the glowing tip of his cigar. “Any chance of the asterator itself causing trouble?”

Maclane looked puzzled. “Trouble?”

“Trouble. Kenzie isn’t actually doing this out of sentiment. If so, he’d just have some of his people keep on with the work. He implies it’s sentiment, to provide an explanation that isn’t subject to logic, or to questions of profit and loss. But in carrying out this sentimental gesture, just incidentally, the asterator moves around. Now we’ve got it.”

Maclane blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Any chance that it may be at some crucial point? When we run it, could it—say—turn into a little supernova?”

Maclane shook his head. “I don’t think, from what Doc said—”

Donovan, scowling, said, “Remember that ‘analysis of a sample’ we did for hire a few years ago? Nobody told us they had reason to believe the sample contained a hallucinogen.”

“I remember. They said their lab people were out with the flu.”

Cardan picked up his cigar. “Let’s go slow with this. There’s some reason Doc slammed his car into that stone wall.”


As the days passed and the weather worsened, Cardan took cheer from the fact that now he didn’t have to let anyone go; but he lost an equivalent amount of peace of mind from the monstrosity rapidly taking form in the building around back known as “the hangar.”

Shipped in sections, the asterator left everyone who looked at it speechless. To make things worse, there were the experts who came along from Hanwell Industries. Sporting mindless grins, they tended to jump at slight noises; they laughed heartily at the sickest jokes; they had to visibly put their minds in gear to answer a simple question. Donovan and Maclane, supervising the work, began to acquire a sleepless look.

Cardan himself, over a period of years, had been occasionally subject to what, for lack of a better name, he called nightmares. One chill night, at two a.m., he found himself sitting among tangled sheets in the quietly ticking blackness. Against the windows, there was a rattle of sleet. Cardan didn’t move.

His occasional nightmares, if that was what they were, tended to occur with craftmanlike attention to detail. Grafted onto actual incidents in his life, they frequently seemed linked also to other nightmares, so that Cardan woke to the impression of living several interconnected lives at once. Sometimes, among the confusion of events, he found something of practical value, and he now carefully thought things over. If there was a lesson here, he wanted to find it.

Finally he got up, pulled the sheets straight and went back to bed. He knew that the psychologists would probably suggest he was suffering some unacknowledged strain. But, of course, that wasn’t it.

Just before he fell asleep, he remembered something.

The asterator should be ready to test tomorrow.


The morning found Cardan pulling into the freshly snow-plowed company lot in a not very pleasant frame of mind. He had barely gotten through the drifts on his shortcut over the hills this morning. So many cars were already here that the work might be proceeding without him.

Cardan went to the rear of the hangar and opened the door. Before him loomed the high, shadowy, faintly echoing interior. Against the gray light from the wide, paned doors on the far side, stood a towering frame like the gimbals of an enormous gyroscope. Within the frame was what looked like the broad side of a giant’s discus, resting on its edge. Near the base, a knot of men dispersed, leaving Donovan and Maclane, dwarfed, looking up at the asterator. Then Donovan called out, his voice intense and faintly echoing: “Rotate both rings.”

There was a hum, the disk moved. There swung into view against the light, the arching slender girders of an inner frame anchoring cables that stretched to the disk. Swirling out from the bulging central part of the disk were raised spiral arms reaching almost to the rim where each ended in an oblong, faintly outlined.

Donovan’s voice was strained. “Stop!”

The hum died. The disk hung motionless.

Cardan looked up at it uneasily. He took time to light a cigar, then walked slowly toward Donovan and Maclane.

As he came closer, Cardan had a sense of the hulking weight of the apparatus which seemed to lean more and more toward him, tilting, ready to topple. The swirling spirals of the disk left him dizzy.

Cardan blew out a cloud of smoke, tore his gaze from the device, and was rewarded by a nervous strain that strengthened as he approached. He seemed to have walked a long distance when he reached Donovan and Maclane.

Donovan’s voice sounded slightly unnatural. “What do you think of Doc’s Folly?”

“I begin to see Kenzie’s viewpoint.”

Maclane said dryly, “We couldn’t subcontract it to someone else, could we?”

“The thought has its attractions. But the idea was to keep our people busy.”

Maclane nodded toward a nearby table. “Take a look at Doc’s notes.”

A mottled black-and-white bound notebook lay on the table. Cardan leafed slowly through pages of equations interspersed with lines of unreadable symbols. “Did Griswell keep his notes in Arabic?”

Donovan said, “According to Beasley, one of Doc’s assistants, that’s the Graham version of Pitman shorthand.”

“How do we decipher this?”

“We’ve got an expert coming. That’s the least of our worries.”

“What else?”

“Beasley. And Allan, another of Doc’s assistants.”

“Still nervous?”

“Scared witless. But they won’t say why.”

Cardan looked up at the looming bulk. “Are the pivots on that thing strong enough?”

Donovan nodded. “It’s all strongly made. But we don’t feel comfortable in the same building with it.”

Cardan cleared his throat. “You got it together faster than I expected.”

“Faster than we expected,” said Maclane.

Donovan said, “It practically fell together.”

Cardan glanced from Donovan to Maclane.

Donovan said, “All we’re doing now, though, is checking the mount.”

“Once you’ve checked it,” said Cardan, “let’s stop there till we’re sure what’s in that notebook.”

“That’s our idea.”

Maclane said, “I’ll show you one thing that’s not in that notebook.” He opened it past the last of the pages on which anything was written, and bent the pages back. The cut edge of another page was visible, sliced off close to the spine.

Cardan tilted the notebook, to see faint impressions indented on the blank page following.

“You might try a strong light crosswise on this page.”

Maclane nodded.

“Somehow,” said Donovan, “I begin to think we’ll earn our keep on this job.”


Cardan, at his desk the following day, considered Doc’s bound notebook which lay opened to a page of incomprehensible calculations. About two-thirds of the way down the page, there was a square root of negative one, circled, with a line drawn to a question mark and some unreadable symbols.

Across the desk, Maclane and Donovan were leafing through typed pages. “Here we are,” said Maclane. “That comment near the question mark reads, ‘Why this? What’s the significance?’”

“Doc didn’t understand his own calculations?”

“Evidently not when he wrote that.”

Donovan said, “We worked out what was on the missing page.”


“A handwritten note:

“Eli—The times match. Marius.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“ ‘The times match’?”


“Whose writing?”


“No date?”


Cardan sat frowning. “Supposedly, that note was to Doc’s boss, Eli Kenzie. But suppose you wrote someone a note. What would you do?”

“If,” said Maclane, “the only paper handy was a notebook like Doc’s?”


“I’d tear out a sheet, then write the note.”

“Doc evidently wrote the note first, since it left an impression. Afterward, the note was cut out.”

Donovan said, “You think Doc meant the note to be in the book? Then, before passing the book on to us, Kenzie cut out that page?”

“I’m wondering. Now, what are those ‘times’ Doc mentions? Could they be times mentioned in the notebook?”

“Very possibly,” said Maclane, “but they ‘match.’ Match what?”

Cardan picked up the notebook, and examined the page. “Kenzie isn’t stupid.  And I don’t suppose he thinks we’re stupid.”

Donovan nodded. “He must have known that as soon as we saw that cut page, we’d examine the next page. It follows he left it for us to find.”

Cardan said, “Suppose Doc gave Kenzie information Kenzie wants to be able to deny knowledge of, but that he thinks we’ll need.”

“He leaves us enough to piece it together?”

Cardan nodded. “There’s something here he’s washing his hands of. What’s in this notebook, now that your shorthand expert has it transcribed?”

“Aside from the math,” said Maclane, “which we can follow only to a point, there are various comments, plus a record of asterator trials.”

“And their times?”

“Yes. But what do the times match with?”

“Well, let’s see what’s in there.”

Donovan handed over the typed transcript.

Cardan leafed through it, reading the entries carefully: “October 30: Thirty-one second run, started at 10:30 this morning. Deuterons against the liner of chamber forty-two ended it. We do get cascade. But, again, there’s no power. Yet there’s helium-3 in the effluent. We must have fusion. But still, we haven’t got it . . . November 9: Forty-eight seconds, starting around 10:17 a.m. The longest yet. But she shut down for deuterons in chamber forty-two. Again, no heat. Power goes in, not out. There’s a sizeable power consumption in this thing. All we have to do is fix chamber forty-two, and we have workable fusion. But where’s the energy?”

Cardan looked up. “Was it working?”

Donovan and Maclane shrugged helplessly.

Cardan read on, to the final entry: “December 9: Seventy-two seconds! Almost a minute and a quarter! Started a little after 10:00 a.m., and everything worked like a dream. Still this damned chamber forty-two wrecked us. We’ve done all we can by field control, positioning the frame, and tension on the shell. Best replace the whole track. Still no detectable output. Yet the energy has to go somewhere. Could the process induce some form of transparency in the apparatus? Why that imaginary factor? Is there a connection?’”

Cardan sat back. “ ‘Cascade’? What does that mean?”

Donovan said, “There are a great many paired ‘tracks,’ leading to ‘coincidence chambers’ near the rim. At any given instant, up each track comes a deuteron—a stripped nucleus of heavy hydrogen—moving in response to applied fields, operated under computer control. Two deuterons reach the chamber—”

“One deuteron from each track?”

“Right. By Doc’s process, they are supposedly in the ‘proper condition to fuse.’ They come together—”

“What is the ‘proper condition to fuse’?”

As Donovan hesitated, Maclane said, “There are quite a few things about this process we don’t understand. Doc assumes that there is such an ideal condition, and he tries to attain it by a process that is partly clear and partly very obscure. There’s a little note in there somewhere, ‘Would they try to mate two cats by just throwing them at each other?’ Doc’s reasoning on control of the applied fields is another thing that’s only partly clear to us. He evidently has his computer compare results in the different sets of tracks as well as successive performances in each pair, considered over time. The computer then adjusts the fields to ‘optimize’ performance. But the details aren’t clear. He apparently set down just enough to remind himself of points he wanted to remember or to think about further. We can follow it only so far.”

“At any rate, there is a deuteron from each track?”


“And you say he controls the relative positions of the deuterons?”

“With applied fields, adjusted by feedback from each deuteron, whose fields affect the applied fields in ways which depend on the aspect and position in space of the deuterons.”

“And the details you don’t understand?”

Maclane shook his head. “Among other things, I can’t follow his math. I’m not sure just how the feedback works. The details of the computer control are an enigma. I have only a hazy picture of how this device actually works.”

“The deuteron,” said Cardan, “has a proton and a neutron. Is the idea to get them lined up so they collide with the two neutrons closest, or slightly at an angle, or what?”

“Doc,” said Maclane slowly, “represents this ideal condition for fusion by the Greek letter omega. He refers to it as ‘the omega condition.’ But to exactly picture it . . . It seems to me he is making further assumptions.”

“He has a more detailed mental picture of the deuteron?”

“Or of the fields associated with it. Or, who knows?”

Donovan said, “I think that has to be it, Mac. The fields associated with it.”

Cardan sat back. Then he shook his head.

Donovan said, “What is it?”

“There’s something here I can’t put my finger on. Something aside from what we’re talking about.”

Maclane said, “I have the same sensation. On top of everything else, there’s something I can’t pin down. I have the sensation of playing chess while I’ve got a bad case of flu. There are things I don’t grasp.”

Donovan said to Cardan, “What do we do? Test it? Or try to figure it out? We ought to be able to learn something from operating it.”

“I’m still in the dark about this ‘cascade’ Doc mentions.”

Maclane said, “To begin with, a deuteron test-stream is sent through each set of tracks in turn. If there’s a malfunction, the asterator stops. If every set works, the asterator ‘goes into cascade’—that is, all the tracks work, and build up to maximum capacities.”

“Can you keep the asterator from going into cascade?”

“We could test each set of tracks separately.”

“Why don’t you, tomorrow, test each set once. That would normally precede cascade, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Maclane.

“But don’t let it go into cascade.”

“Why not?”

Cardan didn’t smile. “I’ve got a hunch.”

Cardan that afternoon bought a small world globe and that evening installed himself with the globe, a long extension cord, a lamp, a card table, a metal ashtray, a folding chair, a pocket calculator, and an electric heater, in a small windowless shed built onto the hangar during an earlier project. The shed, covered with corrugated metal siding, had no telephone or electrical outlets. Free of buggable surfaces, the shed’s rough new construction had provided reassurance at a time when they had wanted a place to talk openly without fear of electronic eavesdropping. The shed’s metal siding was backed with thick insulation and, as the temperature dropped outside, Cardan was conscious only of the calculations he was making. At length, he looked up.

He was now almost certain. But almost, of course, wasn’t good enough.


In late afternoon of the following day, after the asterator test, Maclane and Donovan came to Cardan’s office.

Donovan said wearily, “No wonder Doc ran his car into that wall.”

Cardan said, “You only tested?”

“Yes, and every track functioned. But there was no energy release. There has got to be an energy release!”

Maclane said exasperatedly, “This is really cold fusion. What the devil happens?”

At the door, there was a soft rap and Cardan called, “Come in.”

His secretary stepped into the office, looking pale and shaken. “You asked me specially to listen to the news.”

“Go ahead.”

“They reported a scare at the Scoville nuclear power plant.”

“A scare?”

“They’re shutting down the reactor.”

“Did the report say when it happened?”

“A little after three, at Scoville.”

“Any details?”

“Not in the news.”

Cardan nodded, and sat back. “Thanks.”

She swallowed, and went out.

“A friend of mine,” said Donovan uneasily, “works at Scoville.” He frowned. “A little after three?”

Maclane nodded. “It happened just an hour before we tried the asterator.”

“Scoville,” said Donovan, “is in the next time zone. It happened when we tried the asterator.”

Cardan exhaled carefully. “As Doc said, ‘The times match.’ You didn’t move the asterator after the test?”


“We’ll have to try it again. Whatever you do, don’t let it go into cascade.”


Cardan, a cigar jutting from the corner of his mouth, stood behind Maclane, who sat at a small panel, and methodically tapped a yellow button labeled “TEST.” On a little oblong screen, the red digits “083” lit up, followed by “084,” then “085.”

At a small table to the side, Donovan was talking on the phone to his friend at the Scoville plant. Suddenly Donovan gestured. “Scoville! More trouble!”

Maclane sat staring at the glowing numerals: 085. Cardan tapped him on the shoulder. Maclane wrote briefly in his notebook, shut off the asterator, and came to his feet. Cardan led the way to the windowless shed, unsnapped the padlock, and shut the door behind them. In the darkness, they could hear the whir of the heater fan. Cardan felt along the extension cord and snapped the light switch. The papers were lying on the card table as he had left them. He turned two of them face up, for Donovan and Maclane to read:

Asterator Runs

Date Length of Run Apprx. Time Run Started

9/29 30 sec. 10:25 a.m.

10/11 22 sec. 10:22 a.m.

10/24 41 sec 10:24 a.m.

10/27 24 sec. 10:14 a.m.

10/31 31 sec. 10:30 a.m.

11/9 48 sec. 10:17 a.m.

11/17 46 sec. 10:19 a.m.

11/26 54 sec. 10:08 a.m.

12/2 29 sec. 10:11 a.m.

12/9 76 sec. 10:01 a.m.

Nuclear Accidents

Date Place Local Time Corresponding Time

at Asterator

9/29 Britain 3:26 p.m. 10:26 a.m.

10/24 China 10:24 p.m. 10:24 a.m.

11/9 U.S. 7:17 a.m. 10:17 a.m.

11/17 U.S. 9:19 a.m. 10:19 a.m.

11/26 France 3:09 p.m. 10:09 a.m.

12/9 Russia 6:02 p.m. 10:02 a.m.

Maclane said, “No wonder Doc killed himself!”

“It’s obvious,” said Cardan, “once we get over the idea it’s impossible. Eight of the twelve times that asterator has been run, there’s been a nuclear accident somewhere. And, since this string of disasters started, there have been no nuclear accidents reported except when the asterator has been run.”

Donovan and Maclane stared at the papers. Then Donovan turned, to look at Cardan. “But, how?” said Donovan.

Cardan shook his head. “I can’t imagine. But if every time I snap on a flashlight the object it’s aimed at blows up, then I am going to be very careful with that flashlight.”

Maclane shook his head. “This is totally impossible.

“It happened,” said Cardan. He raised his cigar, discovered he was holding a dead stub, and tossed it into the ashtray. “If something happens that is impossible, we’ve got only two explanations that I can see. First, we’re wrong about what’s impossible. Second, what happened is different from what we thought.”

Donovan straightened. “Mac—”

Maclane glanced at him.

Donovan said, “That asterator has its fields controlled by a computer, the intent being to ‘optimize the ease of fusion.’ There’s a whole sequence of operations right there that we don’t understand, that Doc’s notes don’t explain, and that his assistants couldn’t clear up for us.”

Maclane’s eyes narrowed. “That’s true.”

Cardan frowned, felt his pockets, located a fresh cigar, and absently stripped off the wrapper. “The computer is intended to adjust the fields to ‘optimize the ease of fusion?’ Not to ‘achieve the necessary conditions’ for fusion? Optimize the ease of fusion?”

Maclane nodded. “There’s a difference in viewpoint involved. I think Doc expected first to get a partial success, and the computer was then to vary conditions, trying for a better result.”

“By stages, he’d arrive at perfection?”

“As close to it as possible. And each set of tracks, having slightly different conditions to start with, would supposedly have a slight difference in the number of successful fusions of deuterons. The computer apparently compares the results, draws conclusions from them, varies the conditions further, and then brings all the tracks to the optimal condition—to equal the best results achieved by the best set of tracks. If some one set can’t closely equal the results of the others, something is wrong, and the asterator shuts down.”

“But,” said Cardan, tossing the crumpled cigar wrapper into the ashtray, “when does the computer stop trying to optimize conditions? When there is one hundred percent fusion of deuterons?”

“Not necessarily. There may be a better approach with the same result, say a more efficient use of the energy to generate the fields. So the computer keeps varying conditions.”

“Supposedly,” said Donovan, “this will stop when every possible change produces a falling off in efficiency.”

Cardan, scowling, felt in his pockets for matches. “How does the computer judge the proportion of deuteron pairs that fuse?”

Maclane glanced at Donovan who shrugged helplessly. Maclane looked back at Cardan. “We don’t know. Doc knew, of course. But he had a lot of leeway at Hanwell. He just gave instructions, and he didn’t always explain them. These so-called experts sent along with the asterator couldn’t tell us. In time, we should be able to work it out. But we can’t do much if, every time we turn it on, there’s an atomic scare.”

Cardan struck a match, and puffed his cigar alight. He shook out the match, and said, “There’s nothing like strict logic for getting from the sublime to the ridiculous, and a computer is strictly logical. All right, suppose we just imagine that we’ve turned on the asterator for the first time. A proportion of deuterons fuse. What happens?”

Maclane said, “The computer tries field alterations, and keeps bringing the lowest tracks up to the levels of the more successful tracks. That, at least, is our understanding of it.”

“So, now, finally one set of tracks achieves one hundred percent successful fusion. Then what?”

“The computer brings all the others to the same state, and varies conditions further to see if some approach uses less energy. It then brings every track to the same condition, so far as possible.”

Cardan frowned. “Mac, where will fusion take place?”

“Somewhere in the coincidence chamber.”

“At different places? Or—”

Donovan gave a low exclamation. “We’ve been assuming fusion at random locations within the chamber, with the deuterons in slightly varying relative positions. But what if there are quantum effects that limit the possibilities? Or if there is one optimal location and attitude, and finally all the deuterons fuse at that one location and in that one attitude?”

“And,” said Maclane, “each pair of fusing deuterons in any given chamber expels its neutron in the same direction, and with the same energy, as every other deuteron pair in the chamber?”

“Yes,” said Donovan. “Mac, that would give us a ray of neutrons!”

“Wait, now. In cascade, the numbers of fusing deuterons will be enormous!”

Cardan said, “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” said Maclane, “that if this does happen, we could end up with—” He paused, his eyes widened, and he glanced at Donovan.

Donovan let his breath out in a hiss. “It could produce a ray of closely packed neutrons possibly turned to identical attitudes with respect to one another, identically spaced, with God alone knows what possible linking of forces, or, perhaps, breakdown into smaller particles.”

Cardan, for a brief instant, saw a thin compact ray hurtling through space, straight toward a complex nucleus. The ray, stretching far back, was, along its length, packed, dense, and massive. Its influence reached ahead of it, and. . . . Abruptly, the vivid mental picture vanished, and Cardan said, “When it approaches an atomic nucleus, what will happen?”

Donovan shook his head. “We’ve got no basis for comparison.”

Maclane said, “That’s the problem. It’s almost like a long thin sliver of neutron star.”

“Maybe worse,” said Donovan. “Along its axis, this ray could involve a lineup of neutrons a hundred or a thousand times in length the diameter of a neutron star. There’s no way to predict the forces involved.”

“Then,” said Cardan, “for a rough approximation, take something worse than a neutron star.”

Maclane began to object, but Donovan, frowning, said, “The only thing I can think of would be a black hole.”

Maclane shook his head. “That would take us beyond speculation into the realm of speculation squared. We’re trying to understand one unknown by comparison with another unknown. Then we have to apply a correction to make up for the lack of the main characteristic of a black hole—an enormous gravitational field. It won’t work.”

Cardan, frowning, recalled all that he had heard of black holes, shook his head, and was about to agree with Maclane that this was too strong a comparison. But Donovan was nodding, and said, “I think that’s it. The comparison doesn’t have to give us the guaranteed answer. What we need here are ideas, and this analogy suggests one. Near a black hole, space-time is warped, due to the enormous mass involved. To an external observer, an object falling into a black hole will seem to fall for an infinity of time. Now, I’m no expert on black holes, but there is one difference between stable nuclei—which in effect must be transparent to the ray emitted by the asterator, or it could never affect nuclear installations at such a distance—and unstable nuclei, which are decomposed by it.”

Maclane said, “I can imagine a ray like this penetrating a stable nucleus. After all, a sufficiently energetic neutron may strike a nucleus, and pass through unaffected. If the neutron’s wavelength is short enough, it has a measurable chance to pass between the nucleons—the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus itself. But, why should this ray decompose an unstable nucleus? Where’s the difference, as far as penetration by the ray is concerned?”

Cardan glanced at Donovan, and asked, “The asterator ray would pass through the stable nucleus like a rod pushed through a bunch of grapes?”


Maclane said, “Why wouldn’t it do the same with an unstable nucleus?”

“Because,” said Donovan, “the instability—”

“Some of these ‘unstable’ nuclei have half-lives of over a billion years.”

Donovan nodded. “But the instability means that, given sufficient time, the nucleus will spontaneously decompose. All that’s necessary is sufficient time. No outside energy needs to be supplied. The unstable nucleus will decompose by itself, in time. And,” added Donovan, “we are in the position of external observers, watching as this dense ray approaches the successive nuclei. It must penetrate normal matter with no noticeable effect. From what we observe, it also must decompose radioactive nuclei. How? In front of this long dense ray, it’s natural to expect a terrific field-distortion, roughly the kind of thing we’d expect with a very long, powerful magnet. But what kind of field-distortion? Is it a linking of strong nuclear forces? We have no way to know. But, take the black hole, just for comparison. To the external observer, there are time-related effects. An infinity of time seems to pass before an external object falls out of sight. Suppose we have a similar thing. The ray approaches a stable nucleus. The intense distortion at the head of the ray impinges on the nucleus. The nucleus experiences the equivalent, for it, of the passage of an infinity of time. What does the observer see?”

“Nothing,” said Maclane, frowning.

“Right. Which is exactly what we would expect to see in an infinity of time, since the stable nucleus is outwardly unaffected by time. But the unstable nucleus, exposed to what, for it, is the equivalent of the passage of infinite time? Even if the half-life of that kind of atom is enormous, what of it? In infinite time, it will decompose. All radioactive nuclei in the path of the ray will decompose.”

Maclane, frowning, said, “Let’s get back to this field-distortion at the head of the ray. You don’t say it is time?”

“Equivalent, for the nucleus, as the ray approaches, to the passage of infinite time.”

“How,” said Maclane, and then he paused. “The nucleus of an unstable atom supposedly is unstable because its components—protons and neutrons—are not in the right proportions to stay permanently linked together. There is a configuration—a relative position within the nucleus—in which the protons and neutrons no longer hold each other together, and sooner or later they come into that configuration. Then time, for the  nucleus, is the opportunity to take different configurations. This ‘field distortion,’ approaching and then passing into and through the nucleus, must have the effect on the binding forces within the nucleus of successive changes in the configuration of the nucleus. Those changes in binding force that would eventually have come about due to changes in configuration, are briefly brought about by the field-distortion. And the nucleus comes unbound.”

Donovan glanced at Cardan. “There’s a conceivable mechanism for it.”

Cardan discovered that he was holding a dead cigar and a burnt match. He tossed the match into the ashtray and said, “So, in its effects overall this asterator is like a kind of enormous lawn sprinkler, spraying these rays in random directions. Now, let’s see. Each coincidence chamber emits its own ray?”

Maclane and Donovan nodded.

“But,” said Cardan, “if by chance some one ray strikes a nuclear installation, can this one ray affect enough nuclei to detonate, say, a reactor that has already been shut down?

Maclane said, “There’s another point about the ray that we have to consider. The computer optimizes the ease of fusion.”

Donovan, frowning, said, “True. But we’ve already considered the point. I think the Chief’s reservation is right. One ray couldn’t do it.”

Cardan winced at the nickname, “the Chief.” Where Marius Griswell had been stuck with being called “Doc,” Cardan found himself repeatedly objecting that he didn’t run a fire company, or lead an Indian tribe. Still, it could be worse. One hot-tempered acquaintance had discovered he was known as “the Dragon.” Cardan glanced at Maclane, who was shaking his head.

“Wait a minute, Don. If we accept this effect, then the ray directly in line with them is bound to affect the fusing deuterons.”

“Yes, I suppose. Still, Mac, the ray is moving toward the target nuclei. It’s moving away from the deuterons. So—”

“I didn’t say the effect would be the same. I said there’d be an effect.”

“Yes. That seems reasonable.”

“This effect may for some reason finally lessen the ease of fusion noticeably. Then what?”

Donovan nodded. “Yes, I see. Well, the computer will shift its fields and after a slight delay the deuterons will fuse in a different part of the coincidence chamber. It will start a new ray. That’s it, Mac! In cascade, the coincidence chamber will be radiating detonation-rays the way a machine-gun sprays bullets. It will be bound to hit something if it’s left on long enough.”

“And,” said Maclane, “when some one ray does hit a series of radioactive nuclei, I wonder—how will the computer interpret the result?”

“I’d think the break up of the radioactive nucleus might well exert forces at an angle to the axis of the ray. That could have the effect of destroying the far end of the ray. Repeated often enough with other radioactive atoms, that would limit the length of the ray, and supposedly limit the effect of the ray on the fusing deuterons. That compared to rays that hit no such target would be interpreted by the computer as optimization.”

“Then,” said Maclane, “that would do it! The computer would try to optimize the conditions for fusion in all the other chambers by shifting the fields to make the conditions identical, as if using the position and attitude of the nuclei in the optimal chamber as a model.”

Cardan said, “And this will?”

“Aim every last ray from the asterator in the direction of the nuclear target. And, if the rays don’t all hit, the computer will keep making minor adjustments to optimize the conditions. Very quickly it should have every ray focused on the target.”

“Then,” said Cardan, “with no intent on Doc’s part to do this, the asterator will, first seek a nuclear target and then, second, saturate the target with nuclear detonation rays.”

“Yes. In effect.”

In the bare room, the sound of the electric heater fan seemed loud, as they thought this over.

Cardan nodded slowly. “This at least gives us a mental picture. But right or wrong, it is still all theory. And however it turns out there’s an actual application that may catch up with us anytime.”

“What’s that?”

“However this works, it does work. And it’s no fusion reactor.”

“No, it’s not practical. Unless—”

“Not practical as a fusion reactor. But it’s potentially one of the most brutally practical weapons ever made.”

Maclane glanced at the two sheets of paper.

Cardan said, “All that’s needed is an aiming mechanism and whoever has an asterator can choose whose nuclear installation gets blown up. Even now it’s bad enough. If we merely turn on the asterator and keep putting it in cascade we can almost count on as many nuclear disasters between now and six o’clock tonight as the world has seen till today. In a total of two hundred and eighty seconds, Doc set off six nuclear accidents. And he wasn’t trying. What would half-a-dozen more nuclear disasters do? How many A-bombs and warheads are there out there, waiting to be set off? How do you stop a ray that can penetrate matter?”

Donovan said, “And Kenzie knew it!”

Cardan raised his cigar, found it was out, considered relighting it, and waited thoughtfully while Donovan and Maclane said what they thought of Eli Kenzie. When the worst had passed, Cardan said, “Kenzie probably got Doc’s note when it was too late to save Doc. He was stuck with the asterator, with no one he trusted to work on it. He didn’t dare tell us why he was hiring us. But I never heard a more fake explanation. And he must have known I’d know it was fake.”

“You’re saying he warned us?”

“And offered to sell us the device. My guess is, he’s willing to pay for some kind of decent outcome to this mess. I think we should take him up on it.”

“What? Buy the asterator?”

“A part interest. Given Doc’s reputation, and the obviousness of those lists, we can’t tell who may know about this. We’re even responsible ourselves for two near-disasters. We can’t quit. We may as well make something out of it.”

Maclane stared. “You’re not thinking of a commercial application?”

“What else?” said Cardan.


Eli Kenzie glanced around the shed, folded his overcoat, seated himself at the card table, and moved his briefcase closer. He took out a monogrammed handkerchief and wiped his forehead, his upper lip, and the back of his neck. He glanced at Cardan. “Mind if I adjust the eavesdropping environment?”

“Go ahead.”

Kenzie opened his briefcase, took out three flat boxes, put one on the table, one on the floor, and one on the seat of an empty chair. He flipped switches, and each box gave out its own mixture of conversation, offbeat music, and apparently random sound effects. He produced two lightweight headsets, connected by a cord, and tossed one to Cardan. Cardan slid it on, and Kenzie’s voice spoke in his ears: “Let anyone try to decipher this garble. You said on the phone you want a part of the asterator?”

Cardan adjusted the mouthpiece. “Right.”

“You know what it does?”

“We know one of its little effects.”

“We’ll sell you the whole thing, cheap. How’s that?”

“We’d like fifty percent even better.”

“You want help financing what you’ve got in mind?”


“What arrangements?”

“We turn it into a commercially practical setup with your backing. You then get fifty percent of the profits.”

“Where’s the profit in this sackful of cobras?”

“Do you agree?”

“Sure. We’ll sell you half, keep half for ourselves, and take fifty percent of the profits as the payment. But before we put any more money in this thing you have to convince us it makes sense.”

Cardan nodded, signed two prepared copies of a briefly worded agreement and slid them across to Kenzie who read them carefully, signed, folded one copy into his pocket and sat back.

“You understand, we can’t hope to just develop this as a nuclear-missile defense. Once word gets out, we’ve got an instantaneous international crisis. There has to be an answer for that, too.”

Cardan slid a thick sheaf of papers across the table, and said dryly, “Our plans are fairly wide-ranging.”

Kenzie examined the papers. His eyes widened. He cast a sharp glance at Cardan, and slowly nodded.


Cardan, as the weather grew bleaker, continued to buy his accustomed newspaper each morning and found the news no worse than usual until that time of the year when road crews begin to wonder where to put the next snowfall. That morning Cardan climbed over the dirty gray snowbank at the curb, crunched across the salted ice on the sidewalk and found himself looking at a headline that read:




In his office, Cardan questioned Donovan and Maclane, who stared at the map in the paper, and shook their heads. “There is no way we could be responsible this time for that blast.”

“Then someone else has one. Whether they realize what it is or not.”

The next morning’s headlines read:




Cardan read this in a Washington D. C., restaurant at breakfast with Kenzie. At ten they were talking to a fear-paralyzed Secretary of Commerce. By ten forty-five they were describing the situation to the President, who listened wide-eyed. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Kenzie said, “We didn’t want to hand you this basket of snakes until we felt sure we had an answer.”

“What is it?”

Cardan handed over a sheaf of neatly typed papers and diagrams clipped together at the top. He and Kenzie waited. The quiet in the room was broken only by the crackle of turning paper. Then the President took a deep breath. “We’ll try it.”


In the following months Cardan had little time to do more than glance at the headlines. Certain of these stood out:














It was about the time that last headline appeared that Cardan found himself on a program known as “Face the Press,” grimly answering questions nicely slanted to make him squirm.

Mr. Skinner: Now, you are removing these warheads for profit? Do you actually think you have a right to make money from the potential destruction of the human race?

Mr. Cardan: We’re on the edge of nuclear disaster. Putting all these excess warheads far from Earth costs money. Naturally, we expect to get paid for the job.

Mr. Kauldron: Are you aware that the Soviet Bloc possesses a vast military superiority to the United States and our allies in conventional weapons? Suppose all this unilateral nuclear disarmament strikes the Soviet Bloc as an invitation to conventional attack?

Mr. Cardan: If—

Mr. Kauldron: And the next part of my question is, are you the one who’s responsible for all the deaths in nuclear accidents?

Mr. Cardan: Who said it’s unilateral disarmament? There have even been reports of—

Mr. Kauldron: How do you defend against an attack by overwhelming forces using conventional weapons, in which they have a huge advantage?

Mr. Cardan: If it comes to that you plaster them with rocks from space.

Moderator Cooke: Ah, I believe, Mr. Cardan, you just said that there ‘even were reports’—reports of what?

Mr. Cardan: ‘Nukeleg blackmail.’

Moderator Cooke: What . . .

Mr. Cardan: A large nuclear power makes a secret trade with a developing resource-rich nation, A-bombs for raw materials, at a time when the small nation hasn’t yet heard of asterators.

Mr. Boyle: The big nuclear power smuggles the warheads in?

Mr. Cardan: Yes.

Mr. Boyle: Then I see the nukeleg part. Where does the blackmail—?

Mr. Cardan: After the warhead has been delivered, what do you suppose happens next?

Mr. Boyle: I . . . Ah—

Mr. Cardan: Suppose a ray from an asterator should happen to hit that warhead?

Moderator Cooke: The seller threatens to blow up the warhead he just sold?

Mr. Cardan: He explains that his asterator might, just accidentally, sweep a ray across that warhead. To avoid that, he will have to attach special expensive devices to the asterator. There’ll have to be more payment—more raw material.

Moderator Cooke: Incredible!

Mr. Kauldron: Mr. Cardan, you said we could drop rocks if we’re conventionally attacked.

Mr. Cardan: Small captive asteroids, in orbits we control. In effect, man-made meteors. The result would be as bad as getting hit with a hydrogen bomb.

Mr. Kauldron: What’s to prevent any opponent from doing the same to us?

Mr. Cardan: Right now, there are more of us up there.

Mr. Boyle: If I’m not mistaken, you’re using the Hi-Lift Super-Booster and the Hi-Sky Modular Transport System, to move these warheads. These are Hanwell Industries projects that were rejected by the government for use in the space program. Is that right?

Mr. Cardan: Yes.

Mr. Boyle: Why were they rejected?

Mr. Cardan: Too expensive.

Mr. Boyle: Then—correct me if I’m wrong—in this series of nuclear disasters, Hanwell Industries has invented a reason for the government to buy their system.

Mr. Cardan: The government hasn’t bought them. We use them to move the warheads. The government just pays a fee for warhead removal.

Mr. Boyle: Why do you use this government-rejected system?

Mr. Cardan: It’s big enough to do the job.

Mr. Boyle: You have to admit, it looks like some sort of scheme to get the Hanwell Industries systems in commercial use.

Mr. Cardan: Well, maybe. But, gin and water look alike. If you see a man drink a pint of water, does that make him a drunk?

Mr. Kauldron: Some time ago I asked if you should be blamed for the death of people killed in nuclear accidents. You haven’t answered the question.

Mr. Cardan: Doc Griswell apparently thought he was responsible, but that involves a question you might have trouble answering.

Mr. Kauldron: What question?

Mr. Cardan: If you’re driving on a curving mountain road in winter, and sunlight reflects from your windshield momentarily blinding a skier going down a tricky slope and the skier gets killed, are you responsible?

Mr. Kauldron: I—Ah—

Mr. Cardan: The asterator beam was even less foreseeable.

Mr. Skinner: Is the beam dissipated or dispersed after a certain distance or length of time?

Mr. Cardan: We’ve assumed that it may be. We’ve found nothing to prove it yet.

Moderator Cooke: Mr. Cardan, your Planetary Freight Corporation is a business, not a government-subsidized agency. What do you sell?

Mr. Cardan: Nuclear transport and storage. There is a safe-delivery charge to put the warheads in storage, a small rental fee while in storage, and a charge to withdraw warheads from storage, if anyone ever wants to do that.

Mr. Boyle: Where are the storage sites?

Mr. Cardan: On the far side of the Earth’s orbit beyond the sun, keeping pace with the Earth.

Mr. Boyle: Why there?

Mr. Cardan: The asterator can’t be accurately aimed at a target no one can see. And we find that the beam can’t penetrate a mass of radioactive nuclei; it’s apparently dissipated when the nuclei decompose. The sun contains an enormous mass of radioactive nuclei, and therefore should stop any asterator from hitting the warheads.

Mr. Kauldron: And if you blow up the sun? That’s an improvement?

Mr. Cardan: The asterator ray is puny compared to the mass of the sun. It should have less effect than tossing a kitchen match into a roaring bonfire.

Mr. Boyle: Until asterators are put in space, away from the Earth the warheads are safe?

Mr. Cardan: That’s our belief.

Mr. Kauldron: Why should a communist country pay a capitalist company to freight their warheads into space? They could make equally effective equipment themselves, couldn’t they?

Mr. Cardan: When a crocodile has you in its teeth, do you take time to argue ideology?

Mr. Skinner: How do we protect our nuclear power plants? We can’t put them in orbit.

Mr. Cardan: To protect them, we’ve developed the Dust Shield and the Whirlpool.

Mr. Skinner: What are—

Mr. Cardan: The Dust Shield is a set of shells surrounding the reactor. Blasts of gas through the shells circulate a dense, mildly radioactive dust. An asterator ray aimed at the reactor is absorbed by, and decomposes, the dust in line with it. More dust is constantly swept around, so the ray can’t get through. The Whirlpool is based on the same idea but uses a liquid.

Mr. Skinner: You make the asterator, which causes the need for these devices. Then you sell the devices. You’re really working both sides of the street, aren’t you?

Mr. Cardan: If you’ll think this over, I think you’ll agree that there are worse things to do than protect the reactors and put the bombs on the far side of the sun.

Moderator Cooke: Is there any other development related to the asterator?

Mr. Cardan: The Asterator Drive which is a spaceship drive.

Moderator Cooke: How does that work?

Mr. Cardan: Picture a pencil made of lithium deuteride around a core of a radioactive material. When the asterator beam strikes the core, the radioactive material disintegrates causing fusion of the lithium deuteride with a tremendous release of energy which can be used to drive a spaceship.

Mr. Kauldron: Does that mean you’re now polluting space itself with radioactive waste?

Mr. Cardan: The details are secret, but the current model also decomposes the radioactive waste.

Mr. Skinner: But . . . That drive is controlled hydrogen fusion! Isn’t it?

Mr. Cardan: Yes.

Mr. Boyle: Is this apparatus subject to being blown up by the asterator?

Mr. Cardan: Certain parts could be, but they are heavily shielded.

Mr. Kauldron: So, why can’t a shield be used to protect atomic weapons?

Mr. Cardan: It can be. But there’s a continuous expense in running the shield. Then to use a warhead the shield has to be taken out. To deliver the warhead you need a delivery shield. None of this makes for quick and easy delivery of nuclear warheads. Incidentally, if the shield fails, the warheads may get blown up while you’ve still got them.

Moderator Cooke: Gentlemen, our time—

Mr. Kauldron: I have just one short question. First—

Moderator Cooke: —is up. Thank you, Mr. Cardan, for being with us on ‘Face the Press.’


It was some months later that Cardan sat considering the handsome painting lying on his desk. Neat grids of warheads moved through space with a watch station in view in the background. Cardan didn’t care to think how much nervous sweat had gone into this job. But most of the rough part, happily, was finished.

Donovan, looking at the painting, shook his head. “I’d never have believed any country would volunteer for nuclear disarmament, much less all of them.”

Maclane said, “I wonder what the moral of this experience might be? ‘Every sword has two hilts’?”

“ ‘A thousand bombs in the distance,’” suggested Donovan, “ ‘are better than one underfoot.’”

Cardan said, smiling, “You’re both philosophers. It’s also possible to find a research and business moral in this.”

“What’s that?”

“There are,” said Cardan, “two well-known kinds of gold mines. The first yields a heavy yellow metal. The second is the mine Galileo opened up, and that Newton, Edison, Goddard, and Doc Griswell—each in his own way—worked in. There are a lot of differences between those two mines, but there’s one little thing they have in common.”

“Which is?”

“Neither mine has to yield 100% solid nuggets to be worth working. A fraction of a percent is enough. So however unpromising an ore may look, if what you want is there at all, things may still work out: The secret of the work is in the refining.”

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