Authors: Robert L. Forward
The largest of the probes was really an automated factory, but its single output was very unusual—monopoles. It had some monopoles on board already, both positive and negative types. These were not for output, but the seed material needed to run the monopole factory. The factory probe headed for the first of the large nickel-iron planetoids that the strong magnetic fields of the neutron star had slowed and captured during its travels. It started preparing the site while the other probes proceeded with the job of building the power supply necessary to operate the monopole factory, for the power that would be needed was so great that there was no way the factory probe could have carried the fuel. In fact, the power levels needed would exceed the total power-plant capability of the human race on Earth, Colonies, Luna, Mars, asteroids, and scientific outposts combined.
Although the electrical power required was beyond the capability of those in the Solar System, this was only because they didn’t have the right energy source. The Sun had been—and still was—very generous with its outpouring of energy; but so far the best available ways to convert that radiant energy into electricity, either with solar cells or by burning some fossilized sun energy and using it to rotate a magnetic field past some wires in a generator, were still limited.
Here at Dragon’s Egg, there was no need for solar
cells or heat engines, for the rapidly spinning, highly magnetized neutron star was at one time the energy source and the rotor of a dynamo. All that was needed were some wires to convert the energy of that rotating magnetic field into electrical current.
The job of the smaller probes was to lay cable. They started at the factory and laid a long thin cable in a big loop that passed completely around the star, but out at a safe distance, where it would be stable for the few months that the power would be needed. Since a billion kilometers of cable was needed to reach from the positions of the asteroidal material down around the star and back out again, it had to be very unusual cable—and it was. The cables being laid were bundles of superconducting polymer threads. Although it was hot near the neutron star, there was no need of refrigeration to maintain the superconductivity, for the polymers stayed superconducting almost to their melting point—900 degrees.
The cables became longer and longer and started to react to the magnetic field lines of the star, which were whipping by them ten times a second—five sweeps of a positive magnetic field emanating from the east pole of the neutron star, interspersed with five sweeps of the negative magnetic field from the west pole. Each time the field went by, the current would surge through the cable and build up as excess charge on the probes. Before they were through, the probes were pulsating with displays of blue and pink corona discharge—positive, then negative. The last connection of the cable to complete the circuit was tricky, since it had to be made at a time when the current pulsating back and forth through the wire was passing through zero. But for semi-intelligent probes with fractional-relativistic fusion-rocket drives, one-hundredth of a second is plenty of time.
With the power source hooked up to the factory,
production started. Strong alternating magnetic fields whipped the seed monopoles back and forth at high energies through a chunk of dense matter. The collisions of the monopoles with the dense nuclei took place at such high energies that elementary particle pairs were formed in profusion, including magnetic monopole pairs. These were skimmed out of the debris emanating from the target and piped outside the factory by tailored electric and magnetic fields, where they were injected into the nearby asteroid. The monopoles entered the asteroid and in their passage through the atoms interacted with the nuclei, displacing the outer electrons. A monopole didn’t orbit the nucleus like an electron. Instead, it whirled in a ring, making an electric field that held the charged nucleus, while the nucleus whirled in a linked ring to make a magnetic field that held onto the magnetically charged monopole.
With the loss of the outer electrons that determined their size, the atoms became smaller, and the rock they made up became denser. As more and more monopoles were poured into the center of the asteroid, the material there changed from normal matter, which is bloated with light electrons, into dense
. The original atomic nuclei were still there; but, now with monopoles in linked orbits around them, the density increased to nearly that of a neutron star. As the total amount of converted matter in the asteroid increased, the gravitational field from the condensed matter became higher and soon began to assist in the process, crushing the electron orbits about the atoms into nuclear dimensions after they had only been partially converted into
. After the month-long process was complete, the 250-kilometer-diameter asteroid had been converted into a 100-meter-diameter sphere with a core of
, a mantle of degenerate matter of white dwarf density, and a glowing crust of partially collapsed normal matter.
After the first asteroid had been transformed, the factory turned to the next, which had been pushed into place by a herder probe that had started its task many months ago. The process was repeated again and again until finally there was a collection of eight dense asteroids circling the neutron star: two large ones and six smaller ones, dancing slowly around each other as they moved along in orbit. They were kept in a stable configuration with thrusts from the probes, which used the magnetic fields from a collection of monopoles in their noses to exert a push or pull from a distance on the hot, magnetically charged, ultra-dense masses.
The probes, herding their creations along, now waited patiently for St. George to arrive. As the humans approached the neutron star, the herder probes became more active. They pushed, pulled, and nudged the two larger asteroids until they approached one other. As the ultra-strong gravitational fields of the two asteroids interacted, they whirled about one another at blinding speed and then took off in opposite directions on highly elliptical orbits that would meet again many months later at a point much closer to the nearby neutron star.
Broken-Petal flowed his elongated body down through the ragged rows of petal plants, anxiously feeling the swellings of the ripening pods on the underside of each plant with his tendrils. He subconsciously counted the pods as he went along, but not in terms of numbers, since his total mathematical knowledge consisted of: one, two, three—many.
Although Broken-Petal could not count, he was very good at equating large numbers. He knew that, sometimes, what seemed to be many pods was still not enough to feed the clan—for there were many in the clan and all were always hungry. As he moved and felt, the many pods in his mind grew and, as the number grew, his anxiety for the many in the clan became less and less. He found his undertread adding a youthful t’trum pattern to his smooth flowing motion as he came to the end of the last row. He let his opalescent body resume its normal flat, ellipsoidal shape and looked at the crop with pride. The petal plants were tall. He would have liked to have seen them all, but he was content to rest at one end and look with only three or four of his dozen dark red eyes down between
the rows that he had struggled so hard to get the clan to dig.
Broken-Petal remembered the time, many turns of the stars ago, when he came across proud old Dragon-Flower with a stub of a broken dragon crystal in her manipulator.
“What are you doing, Aged One?” Broken-Petal asked.
“I’m tired of having to wander in the wilderness to find a petal plant that has not already been stripped of all of its pods,” she said. “I’m going to have my own plants, right here outside my wall.” She left the dragon crystal sticking in the crust, and flowed back to let him see what she had been doing. As she did so, the strong crystalline bones in her manipulator dissolved, and the muscle and skin that had covered the thick, articulated appendage shrank back into her body until her surface was smooth again.
“Why are you digging those holes, Aged One? How will that get you your own petal plants?”
She replied, “I may be old, but I still see well and remember well. The last time the young ones came back from a hunt, they had traveled so far away they had found some petal plants that had never been picked. They brought home as many pods as they could carry. There were many delicious ripe ones and some that looked all right, but, when opened, were runny and the seeds inside were hard. Naturally, being an Aged One, I got the overripe pods. I ate all that I could—the taste is not bad once you get used to it—but the seeds inside were too hard to crack, so I rolled them outside.”
“I remember that hunt,” Broken-Petal said. “We never did find a sign of a Flow Slow or even a Slink, but that patch of untouched petal plants made up for it all.”
Dragon-Flower continued, “One turn I noticed that one of the seeds had rolled into a crack in my wall. It
had a little petal growing from it. I watched it turn after turn as it became larger and larger. It grew into a petal plant! I was happy, I would have my own petal plant right near my door. I would dream of picking the pods whenever I wanted, without having to go far distances. Maybe I could even wait and have a ripe pod to eat all by myself, as I did in the old times when I was a young warrior and went on hunting expeditions.”
Her t’trums became sadder as she went on, “But the stones in the wall kept the petal plant tilted to one side—and it fell over and died.”
She added, “I watched the other seeds, but none of them grew into petal plants. They just sat there under the sky and did nothing. Then many turns ago, having nothing better to do, I cleaned out my stockade and pushed a pile of dirt, old pod skins and Flow Slow nodes out the door. The pile covered one of the seeds. Later I noticed it too had started to grow into a petal plant!
“That’s it over there,” she said, rippling her eye-stubs.
Broken-Petal’s eyes followed the ripples and saw a small plant growing up from the corner of a decomposing heap of trash. The plant was still small enough that he could look down on its concave topside, cooled to a dark red by the black sky above, while the lumpy underside of the many-pointed leaf structure reflected the healthy yellow glow of the crust.
“It should be big soon,” Dragon-Flower said. “I can already see some pod swellings on the underside.”
Several thoughts ran through Broken-Petal’s mind as he looked at the plant, with its promise of food. But there was one thought that made him feel in a funny way that he had never felt before. He felt the spark of inspiration.
“Aged One! I have thought of a new thing! Let us take all the hard seeds we can find and put them under piles of trash that we take out of our stockades. The
seeds will grow into petal plants and we will have all the pods that we want!”
Dragon-Flower paused a moment, reformed her manipulator, and grasped her broken shard of dragon crystal. “You are wrong, Broken-Petal. The seeds do not need trash. My first petal plant was not under trash, it was in a hole in my wall,” she said. “It is obvious that the petal plants just want to see the sky. As long as the seeds stay out on the crust where they can see the sky they are happy and do not grow. But if you take away the sky, they get unhappy and break out of their hard coats and grow until they can see the sky. That is what I am doing with this broken crystal. I use the sharp point to make a little hole in the crust. I put the seed in the hole and cover it up so that it cannot see the sky. The seed will get unhappy and start to push up until it can see the sky once more, only by then it will be a petal plant, instead of a seed.”
Broken-Petal knew better than to get into an argument with an Aged One, even if he was Leader of the Clan. He watched as Dragon-Flower continued with the arduous task of poking the sharp end of the broken crystal into the hard crust. She soon tired and quit, but not before there were many holes around the perimeter of her stockade, and in each hole was an unhappy seed, covered over with powdered crust.
Dragon-Flower’s experiment was both a success and a failure. Most of the seeds grew into plants, and soon Dragon-Flower was on friendly terms with many, as she had more pods than she could eat. Broken-Petal had to put his weight on a few of the more rash youngsters and give them a good drubbing before they stopped their raids on her plants.
“You lazy flats!” he would holler on their hides. “Go out and find your own pods! And make sure you bring back the best one for Dragon-Flower to replace the one you took!”
He couldn’t let them get lazy and weak; he would need their strength on the next raid or hunt.
Then, things got worse. The plants grew and grew until they blocked the sky over most of Dragon-Flower’s stockade. Although no one really minded reaching a manipulator under a plant to take a ripe pod to eat, it was really nerve-wracking to have those heavy-looking petals hanging over one. Dragon-Flower had to tear down her walls and build a new stockade away from the plants. It was good she did, for as the plants aged, their support crystals grew weak; then one or more of the petals would break off under the extreme gravity; and would instantly reappear on the crust, its crushed mass sending out a shock of vibration that went rippling through the clan compound, making everyone nervous.