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Authors: Edward M Lerner

Fool's Experiments

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FOOLS' EXPERIMENT

 

Edward M. Lerner

 

 

TOR

A TQM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK

New York

 

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

FOOLS' EXPERIMENTS

Copyright © 2008 by Edward M. Lerner

Portions of this work incorporate material, substantially revised, that first appeared in the following stories:

"Presence of Mind" and "Survival Instinct" originally appeared in
Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

All rights reserved.

A Tor Book

Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC 175 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10010

www.tor-forge.com

Tor is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

ISBN 978-0-7653-5862-2

First Edition: November 2008

First Mass Market Edition: September 2009

Printed in the United States of America

0987654321

 

 

To the pioneers behind the original big and clunky mainframes and the earliest software.

And to the professors who first taught me to understand computers.

It's been an interesting trip....

 

Errors are not in the art, but in the artificers.


Sir Isaac Newton

 

Every cause produces more than one effect.


Herbert Spencer

 

I love fools' experiments. I am always making them.


Charles Darwin

 

 

FRIDAY, JULY 17

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

Welcome to Greenville, read the sign in the lobby. Brian Murphy loathed that sign. It doesn't belong, he thought, for easily the thousandth time. The public wasn't welcome in a nuclear power plant, or at least they ought not to be.

Murphy was a big man, in height and through the beer belly. Something about him—his stance, maybe, or how the shoulder-holster bulge in his coat looked so natural—screamed
cop.
Things are often what they seem: He'd been on the force for almost twenty years, until the department doctors found the heart murmur. Now he headed security for the Greenville Power Station. The change had turned out for the best: Industry certainly paid better than the city, and most evenings he made it home for dinner. Still, nearly eleven years after taking the job, he marveled at how much more willing his bosses were to pay for his advice than to follow it.

He watched the civilians filter in from the meticulously landscaped grounds, then mill aimlessly around the sundrenched atrium. Several filled Styrofoam cups with the truly dreadful coffee from the lobby dispenser. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly ten o'clock.

"Over here, people," the perky guide called out. "Our tour starts in a few minutes."

Tour, faugh. Murphy understood why they gave tours, though: license renewal. The plant was nearing the end of its original operating license, and the investment to dismantle and replace the 1,100-megawatt plant would be enormous. It would be far cheaper to renovate the place and keep it running. The antinuke types were, predictably, resisting all license renewals.

And so the twice weekly public-relations tours would continue, in hopes of convincing the public that nuclear power is our friend.

"Everyone, please form a line. We'll be going through the gate one at a time."

Murphy grunted to himself. Here, at least, was a touch of sanity. The tours ended the day the World Trade Center towers came crashing down. When the tours had been allowed to resume, it was only on condition of an airport-style security gate.

Three of his staff now manned the entrance, two at the portal itself and one behind, seemingly loitering, but actually eyeballing the crowd. The visitors seemed harmless enough, mostly upstanding businessmen and -women in suits, plus a few well-scrubbed housewives. No children, thank God. He had at least talked the execs out of that.

The pretty, young brunette guide went through the gate first, chattering as always. Purses and a few briefcases rode the conveyor belt past the X-ray equipment. What in
hell
would make someone bring a briefcase on a tour?

"Senor, you take thees building to Coo-ba and no one weell get hurt."

He glanced toward the whisperer, and the presumed owner of the bony finger sticking into his ribs. The line wasn't funny
before
9/11. It certainly had not been since. "Try that remark at an airport sometime, Max. See how amusing the screeners there find it."

Max Bauer just grinned. He was the VP of public relations, and the chief perpetrator of the plant tours. His faux Arabic was even worse than his Spanglish. "Lighten up, willya? We don't want to spook the customers."

As usual, it worked the other way round—the customers were spooking
him.
Murphy's psychic antennae quivered. Why? He eyed today's guests, more than half of whom had passed without incident through the security gate. The line was paused while a distinguished-looking guy in an Armani suit emptied his pockets into a plastic bin. Relieved of keys, pens, mobile phone, watch, cigarette lighter, and coins, Armani passed the magnetometer without causing an alarm tone. A guard took the cigarette lighter until after the tour. Armani wasn't the problem. The two housewives directly behind him looked benign, too. But the bald man behind them...

How had he
not
noticed this guy before?

Baldy was sweating copiously and mumbling unintelligibly. He wore a suit, like most men on the tour, but his jacket was rumpled and his tie was knotted ineptly. He clutched a mega-sized plastic soda cup from the burger joint down the road. The protruding plastic drinking straw magnified the tremor in his hand.

Murphy had a lousy memory for names, but he hardly ever forgot a face. He was almost certain Baldy had been to Greenville before, more than a year ago, touring with a bunch of engineers. If so, Baldy hadn't been rumpled and twitchy then.

Murphy sauntered over. Baldy's skin was pasty. "Are you all right, sir?"

"Yes. Yes. Fine." Baldy's delivery was wooden.

By now, both women ahead of Baldy had passed through the gate. Time for a decision. Without a
very
good reason, Murphy dare not turn someone away. Denying access would be not only bad PR but also possible grounds for a lawsuit. "A bit nervous about nuclear power, sir?" The man muttered something. "What, sir?"

"Yes."

No one made you come, Murphy thought.

Max was frowning. Max didn't get security; that didn't keep him from meddling in it. He'd gone all the way to the CEO to have Murphy overruled on inspecting visitors' shoes.

Baldy's determined grip on his tall drink made Murphy inexplicably nervous. Half the folks in line held cups of Greenville's lousy coffee. Murphy could imagine Max's reaction if he confiscated Baldy's drink. "This isn't the Cineplex, Murph. We're not protecting the sales at our concession stand."

Sigh. "Go on through, sir," Murphy said.

He walked around the gateway, catching the eye of his senior man on duty and tipping his head slightly toward Baldy. Freak. I'll keep an eye on him.

The remaining visitors transited the magnetometer without incident. Murphy tried, without success, to relax. Baldy continued to sweat despite the near-arctic temperature at which the plant was kept for the benefit of its electronics. The tour group slowly made its way past viewing galleries of thick, unbreakable glass that overlooked the nuclear reactor itself, the massive steam turbines, and the diesel generators that would power emergency equipment in case of a reactor shutdown. Everyone seemed suitably impressed with the feet- thick concrete wall of the containment building, designed decades ago to withstand the impact of a falling airliner. (Of course, a large jet then was a 707. What about a fully fueled modem jumbo jet making a power dive? Murphy hoped never to see
that
experiment attempted.)

Little Miss Perky kept up her patter, parroting everything she'd been taught about the plant's many safety features. Despite himself, Murphy grinned. Little did she know her main qualification for this job was blatant bubbleheadedness. She was a walking subliminal suggestion for the simplicity of nuclear power. "Just a
really
big teakettle," she had actually gushed at one point.

As they came to the highlight of the tour, the master control room, Baldy was twitchier than ever. Why did Baldy bother to lug a soda around the facility? Murphy didn't remember the man taking a single sip. As Murphy thought back, the visitors filed through normally locked double doors into the plant's brain center. Why was he worried? Clear, flexible plastic shields, like on point-of-sale terminals in fast-food places, protected the consoles.

The hundreds of indicator lights, gauges, and control levers never failed to awe Murphy. Massive operator consoles lined three walls. Flat-panel displays hung above them, summarizing overall status. In the center of the control room sat the computerized gear retrofit after the long-ago near meltdown at Three Mile Island.

Like shoe inspections, Murphy had lost the battle to bar tours from this room.

"And over there"—the guide gestured with an extravagant flourish—"we control those
enormous
turbines you saw a little while ago. Now here's an interesting fact. See those red and green lights? A green light means that a valve is closed, and a red light means that a valve is open." She winked at a housewife. "Green for stop and red for go? It had to be a
man
who designed that, don't you think?" Two women dutifully laughed; most looked pained.

Baldy sidled for a closer look at the master control console. The shift operator there glanced nervously in Baldy's direction, opening her mouth as though to object, but saying nothing. A matrix of black pushbuttons occupied half the ledge in front of her, each button governing the position within the reactor core of one control rod. An array of wall- mounted LEDs at the operator's eye level illustrated the position of each rod.

Slide enough rods into the core and the nuclear reaction stopped. The rods soaked up the neutrons, whatever neutrons were, needed to maintain the reaction. Slide out too many rods and, paradoxically, the reaction was also supposed to stop. The neutrons then zipped through and out of the fuel assembly so quickly that too few of them interacted with the uranium fuel to sustain the chain reaction. Murphy had heard the tour spiel
many
times.

"And here we control the main and backup cooling systems." Baldy wasn't listening, so neither was Murphy. Baldy's right hand emerged from his coat pocket to firmly pinch the drinking straw in his soda cup. What the hell was that about?

Jerkily, Baldy slid the straw up and down. He did it repeatedly, as though stabbing crushed ice. The straw remained straight despite all the jabbing. Could there be something rigid inside the straw?

The cup's snap-on lid popped loose. What was that irritating, acidic smell?

Murphy shoved through the crowd. That wasn't soda in the cup! Baldy had been stabbing, all right, but not ice. He had punctured an inner liner of some sort. "Stop that man!" Operators jumped up, but the damned tourists were in their way, too.

What else was in the cup?

Murphy drew his gun. "Freeze, mister." The visitors scattered, as many getting in his way as out of it. Cursing, he pushed people aside. Baldy, his skin ghostly pale, jiggled the straw. "
Freeze,
damn you."

People screamed and stampeded, jamming the exits. Not the staff, however; they stayed, ready to do whatever might be needed.

Baldy's renewed murmuring was drowned out by the crowd. His demands?

"Tell me what you want!" Murphy shouted.

Baldy kept muttering, inaudible above the din. He jerked up the straw for another jab.

For a more vigorous stab at a stubborn inner bag? Something to ignite the first chemical? A vague recollection taunted Murphy. His memory for chemical names was even worse than his memory for people names. Hyper-something fuels, mutually igniting. "Freeze now!"

Jesus H. Christ, the man stood right by the main console. "Not another inch." More incomprehensible jabber. The acrid stench permeated the room. An operator looked meaningfully at Murphy. Should I try to jump him?

Murphy shook his head. Jostling would only spill the chemicals—and maybe burst that stubborn second inner bag. What would that do? "Set the cup onto the floor— carefully—or I shoot." He was bluffing, or at least hoped he was. Bullets couldn't be good for the controls in here.

He might not have any choice.

The muttering took on a mantralike, almost hypnotic cadence. Sweat poured down Baldy's ashen face. His hands trembled. A terrific struggle raged behind crazed eyes—and then Baldy plunged the straw.

Crack,
went Murphy's handgun.

Fire spewed from the cup. Baldy fell against the console with an unearthly scream, then struggled onto the waist-level shelf, spreading the flames with his own burning clothes and body.

Crack.
The fiery figure spasmed violently, then lay still.

Operators grabbed fire extinguishers even before the writhing stopped. They sprayed Baldy, the ominously crackling controls, and the spreading pool of burning liquid. Klaxons shrieked overhead, while alarm panels spanning half the room lit up like Christmas trees.

With his hands hastily wrapped in his suit coat, Murphy pushed the smoldering body from the console ledge onto the floor. The charred remains struck with a meaty thud.

Mercifully, someone suppressed the warbling alarms. Red lights gradually blinked out as the crew initiated a scram, an automated shutdown, of the reactor. The plant would be down for who knew
how
long, as they checked out and replaced every control and instrument in the room, and the wiring leading from it.

For the record, Murphy felt for a pulse. He didn't find one.

Nor explanation, either. Murphy wondered if he would ever get one.

 

BOOK: Fool's Experiments
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