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Authors: Patrick Taylor

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BOOK: The Martian Pendant
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After Diana had made sure they wouldn’t be in the flight path of the airstrip, the oilrig was noisily set up a half mile south. As soon as it was completed, drilling began. It wasn’t long before the drill penetrated to the underground stream that was recognized as the companion of the surface flow tangential to the camp. But water wasn’t what those men were seeking, and the drilling, ever deeper, continued.

A certain resentment was created in the laborers about the Pinkertons, who spent the days sitting in their tents, idling or playing cards, while the workers sweated because of their toil, first drilling the water well, and then working on the oil rig. This situation was defused one night when the staccato barking of a BAR was heard, followed by the cries of a fleeing pack of hyenas that had come among the tents sniffing for food scraps. When a tent full of laborers emerged to find that tall Texan and his smoking automatic rifle, they decided then and there that the guards could loaf all they wanted during the day.

Due to Max’s lack of foresight, the camp had no nurse or physician, although they had been supplied with generous amounts of antibiotics and anti-venom doses, in addition to the usual first-aid supplies. As she busily set up the lab facilities and directing the placement of the water drilling equipment, Diana drafted Max’s secretary Myra to serve as the nurse when the occasion arose. Max wasn’t too happy with that, but went along with it when Diana told him that she had too many duties already.

Analysis

When the lab was set up, adjoining the stone hut that had been built to house the repair shop, Diana attempted a preliminary analysis on the few reddish shards that had been gathered earlier. Again, she saw the similarity of that material to her pendant. It resisted all the usual acids and withstood the highest temperature their forge could generate. Ron Olszewski, the blacksmith-welder, a burly Pole from the steel mill town of Gary, Indiana, just south of Chicago, could neither dent nor shatter the shard with his twenty-pound sledgehammer. Even firing at a fragment with the armor-piercing .50 Caliber Anti-tank rifle the Pinkertons had brought along failed to make a dent.

The English geologist Ballard, who was also a metallurgist, was stumped. He and Diana stood over the object on the anvil after Ron had exhausted himself swinging the hammer.

Shaking his head, he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Hard like a diamond, but impossible to shatter, so far anyway, and far more resistant to heat than any metal.”

Diana asked, “Doesn’t it remind you of a meteorite? Look at that sheen. The few fragments of them I’ve seen in museums all have that quality.”

“Quite,” he responded. “They may look like that, but the resemblance is only superficial. Being mostly iron and nickel, meteorites certainly can’t take super-high heat. When they break up, the edges are similar, but mostly they just melt and then vaporize when they enter our atmosphere.” 

Diana looked at the fragment. “This reminds me of that futuristic American comic strip ‘Buck Rogers,’ from the Thirties. They had a metal called ‘Impervium,’ I think, which was supposed to be almost indestructible. That name certainly fits this. My concern is, if it can’t be broken down by any of our methods, we’ll never know what it is.”

Ballard shrugged. “We’ll just have to send it to the U.S., for the experts there to play with. I have to say that it looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on earth, except for that pendant you wear.”

That night after supper, sitting out under the stars, she was enjoying the display overhead. Using the field glasses she had picked up at a bazaar in Dar, as they were calling the port city, she searched for the planets. She found Jupiter easily, and Venus too. Mercury was usually too close to the sun to make out. Where, she wondered, was Mars?  Suddenly, an answer to an earlier question came to her.

Her thoughts returned to the remains of the second spaceship.
Fabricated of that material, how could such a strong structure, even in a high-speed impact, be reduced to a scant few fragments? It was a given that the ship would heat up during atmospheric re-entry to as much as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but that heat, in itself, would hardly be sufficient to cause fragmentation.
She asked herself,
but what of the added heat of impact?

“That’s it!” She exclaimed, “These little shards. Super-heat plus super force. Both at the same time.”

In the morning, she could hardly eat her breakfast in anticipation. Sitting down next to Ballard, she blurted out her idea. She had to say it a second time before her message came across clearly, due to her excitement.

“By Jove,” he said, “You may have some
thing there. Let’s give it a go!” They yanked Olszewski away from his second helping of Spam and eggs; their enthusiasm at that moment trumped his hunger. Telling the cook to save his plate, he joined them at the smithy, where he fired up the forge to white heat. While the temperature was climbing, Diana and Ballard rigged up a stout protective barrier beside the anvil.

“No telling,” she observed, “how the super-heated fragment, or even the anvil, will behave. There no doubt will also be hot fragments from the ceramic material that
is needed to protect the anvil.” Reminded of the wide scattering of the fragments they had picked up in the field, she cautioned, “Things could indeed be shooting in all directions.”

The crucial moment finally came, and with the brawn of the steelworker propelling the heavy hammer from behind the barrier, red-hot fragments did pelt the inside of the stone hut. But none of them were from the alien material.

On close inspection, Diana shouted, “Look, there’s a dent! And are those tiny radiating cracks?”

Ballard agreed, after scanning the cooling fragment with a large magnifying glass. “Good show! We’re on the right track now. The combination of white heat and sharp impact looks to be the solution.”

“Olszewski,” Diana said, “Nice work. Now get that anti-tank rifle. I’ll wager the combination will do it.”

The diesel generator running the blower for the propane furnace was restarted, and a second fragment heated. They set a steel plate in the stout vise, protected from melting by more ceramic tile. Covered by a welder’s mask and apron, Ballard extracted the test specimen from the furnace with long tongs, putting it against the plate. As all three sought refuge behind the barrier, the large rifle was aimed and fired by Olszewski.

The resulting explosion startled them, being far greater than expected, even from a high-velocity missile striking armor plate. The air of the hut was momentarily pervaded by acrid smoke, and when it cleared, all that could be found were a few tiny fragments. There was no sign of melting, combustion or even any powdery residue that could be analyzed.

Disappointed, despite the experiment exceeding all expectations, Diana said, “Aside from the fragmentation, it all just vaporized. Now if the people at home can analyze that in a vapor chamber, they’ll have something to start with.”

*    *    *      

When it was inspected in the U.S. with an electron microscope, the Martian composite seemed as much fibrous as crystalline, unlike either metal or gemstone. The problem was that in the laboratory, attempts to further break down the material, even with super heat and massive impact, led to only slight surface cracks, just as with the original field technique used in Africa before the anti-tank rifle was employed. But at home, even with the impact of a 20mm armor-piercing shell delivering much greater force than the .50 Caliber antitank round used at the dig, only slight crazing was produced. Obviously, white heat and massive impact were necessary, but something was still missing.

Diana was surprised when she received the news. Discussing it with Ballard, she said, “I can’t figure it out. We succeeded here, under the most primitive conditions, yet the experts in California failed to duplicate our results. What do you make of it, Jon?”

“It baffles me,” Ballard replied, “but as with any scientific experiment, even a successful one, confirmation is essential.”

She thought about that only a second or two, and then said, “Well, what are we waiting for?”                                                    

Board Deliberations
 

Those gathered around the big table in L.A. were silent. The results of vaporization of the samples, radioed in the week before, had created a sensation, but the enormity of the fact that the material was perhaps impossible to analyze had taken time to sink in. This special meeting had been called to consider the impact that the discovery might have on the oil interests. Short of the original dozen trustees because of the earlier defections, but still representing ninety percent of international oil outside the Communist Bloc, the members of the Board began to argue among themselves.

Regardless of whether the fragments found were hitherto-unknown interplanetary debris or were the result of an explosion of some alien space vehicle, the majority agreed that the discovery had the potential for great profit. The three dissenting members represented the West: United of California, Texas Petroleum and Pemex, the Mexican Federal oil monopoly. These men were convinced that the mysterious material was manufactured, and that any technology that could produce such an impervious substance could also be light years ahead of us in energy for propulsion. That would render fossil fuel for engines obsolete.

They had just heard a presentation by their nuclear consultant that the level of radiation from the exploration site was somewhat above the normal background activity of the surrounding terrain. Putting that evidence together with the unique character of the strange, virtually indestructible fragments, the concept of an alien spaceship or missile, powered by an advanced nuclear engine of some type, gained credence. It began to dawn on some that Diana’s story, far-fetched as it had seemed, might contain elements of truth. Perhaps it was more than coincidence that she was the one who had found the site in the first place.

When it came time to decide, the Board President cautioned them. “Gentlemen, it has come down to whether, like ostriches, we bury our heads in the sand, or we face reality. If this evidence means we have uncovered an alien technology far greater than our own, only a fool would ignore it in order to realize more short-term gains in petroleum.”

The vote passed. A motion was then proposed that any non-petroleum findings be kept under wraps, not leaked to anybody. In that way, a threat to the oil industry would be forestalled, and any advanced method of propulsion would remain secret until such time as the release of the facts would be profitable to their companies. This passed without dissent. Plans were proposed for research and development on any of the discoveries, with the aim of marketing them when the time came. It took three votes before a deadlock could be broken, because of the one representative who abstained at first. He was the same member who would
leak the proceedings to the dissidents.

                                                                
TEN

 

Digging Begins

 

Max and Diana disagreed about what shape their operation should take. Because of the depth of their objective, she expressed her eagerness to move in with the D-8’s. Max, as director of the expedition, insisted on a classical and methodical approach into the ground, in hopes of carefully uncovering artifacts in identifiable strata as they dug. He had been communicating by short-wave radio with the Cartel, receiving instructions to make everything look like a normal palaeoanthropological effort, in order to avoid suspicion. On his own, he might have agreed with Diana. But he was being paid by big oil to conduct a covert operation, and money talks. If the authorities at the University knew the truth of his involvement, only his tenure would keep him from being summarily sacked.

    
What the hell
, he thought. He was tired of all the academic work at the University anyway, for relatively low pay. He yearned for the luxuries enjoyed by those who now retained him, and a prolonged dig would give him more time to bed the women of the expedition, maybe even Diana. Actually, a compromise was reached between the two of them, partially because he wanted to win her, and because her argument did impress him.

    “Anything significant will be confirmed by that approach, because if it’s constructed of the same material as those bits and pieces, it’ll probably be intact. And any anthropologic specimens, if the ship was manned, will probably be inside. Their landing was a million years ago! You wouldn’t expect much in the way of human fossils outside after all that time, would you? Let’s hope some openings will allow entry. No way will we be able to blast our way in, and even if we could, we’d destroy everything inside.”

Max finally decided that he would conduct a classical dig along one side, parallel to the buried object, sifting the soil carefully, looking for artifacts, while bulldozers and backhoes under Diana’s direction would excavate straight down to the area of interest, whatever it was, along the opposite side.

 

The Cutting Torch

While the heavy equipment was in the early stages of removing the rocky overburden covering the deeply buried object, Diana and Ballard set up their experiment once more with the help of Olszewski, and now Cavanagh, the nuclear physicist. Using the furnace at capacity and the antitank rifle, they again shattered their target easily.

Ballard, dumbfounded, remarked, “How can we be successful here, when in the States, with all their fancy equipment, they failed miserably? Let’s radio our results immediately.”

Diana looked at the tiny fragments for a minute, and then exclaimed happily, “No. I’ve got a hunch. Get the nuclear counter. Maybe a third condition is needed for penetrating this stuff. I’ve heard of experiments with armor-piercing missiles. They use a core of heavy metal, usually tungsten, obtainable in quantity mostly from China. And with the Communist takeover there, an unlimited source for that metal might be easily cut off. Uranium is of even greater density, and is becoming increasingly available. As you know, spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, which are worthless for power generation after the useful radioactivity has become depleted, serve that purpose well.”

Ballard replied, “But they used the same technique as we did, only more so.” Then, seeing the light, he said, “Oh, jolly good thinking, I see what you’re getting at. Their ammo still has tungsten cores!”

Diana replied, “Precisely.”

Running into the stone hut with the Geiger counter, Olszewski apologetically panted, “They’re using the scintiscanner at the dig, so I had to settle for this instead.”

As Diana grabbed it out of his hand,
the Geiger counter began to crackle noisily, but only when she closely approached each fragment.

“I believe we’ve solved it,” she exclaimed. “It’s the radioactivity!”

Cavanagh added, “And notice that the radiation has a very short range. Alpha particles, probably. Now maybe we’ll be able to develop a way to breach the material without destroying it, but we’ll have to shield ourselves from the radiation.”

At lunchtime, sitting off by themselves, the four discussed the possibility of a tool that would combine the three essential conditions for penetrating what they all had come to call Impervium. The blacksmith, as a welder, was on the right track when he mentioned the use of the oxyacetylene torch.

Ballard offered, “There’s our heat source. But how to combine that with the impact force needed and a source of alpha particles?”

Diana, recalling builder’s tools for drilling into concrete, said, “We’ll combine the torch with a heavy-duty hammer drill. A jackhammer would work, but would be too unwieldy.”

Ballard asked, “But what alpha source could we use? Anything emitting gamma or even x-rays would be dangerous, and cumbersome as well, considering the shielding necessary.”

She looked at him expectantly, “You’re the geologist and metallurgist. What element could we use that won’t melt under the great heat of the torch?” Turning to Cavanagh, she asked, “What would emit the kind of radiation that we need? How about a gas?”

The nuclear scientist replied, “Radon gas. And it’s available from oil refineries as a byproduct of propane production. But the one doing the cutting would have to wear a gasmask, as well as eye protection from the torch.”

There was silence for a few minutes as they finished eating. “I say!” she blurted out, it’s right under our noses. We could dig the uranium out of the antitank slugs, and use it like welding rods!”

Capital idea, Diana!” Ballard said, “Its melting point is a little over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so it might keep its form at a high enough heat to be effective against the Impervium.”

They then parted for the work planned that afternoon, after they had commissioned Olszewski to see what he could do to construct their three-way cutting torch.

“Be careful, Ron,” Cavanagh called out, “Use protective gloves with that uranium. They call it ‘depleted.’ But its half-life is over four billion years, and it has plenty of radiation in it still.”

That night, she prepared a report for the Cartel on the revelation that radiation was a crucial element. Spent uranium cores in the antitank shells would shatter the resisting fragments, while conventional tungsten cores would not. She also worked into the night drawing up sketches for the cutting torch, based on the ideas of the previous lunch hour. She didn’t know when the next mail would go out, but they readied the plans for that, with the secrecy needed. The Buell Tool people especially would be interested, she decided, and best suited to come up with a practical solution. And the sooner the better.

Wings

The word regarding secrecy arrived on the same day as the big tractor-trailer rig carrying the disassembled Stinson L-5. It had been part of the aid given the Soviet Union during the war, and still bore the red star markings. There was no problem painting those out, since the cotton fabric of the plane was the same olive drab color as the war surplus trucks of the expedition, mostly Dodge six-wheelers. The greatest difficulty with the assembly of the Stinson was that the instructions were in Russian, but the plans, even without English, made the job relatively simple. It took only a week for the two mechanics to bolt the wings and tail elements to the fuselage, and to complete the job of readying the craft for flight.

When she was a child, one of Diana’s cousins had among his toys an “erector set,” little metal girders, wheels and other parts that could be put together in different ways to create toy buildings, machinery or vehicles. When she visited him, she monopolized most of the components. She had always been interested in building things, and this, coupled with the realization that she would be the one expected to fly, led her to take plenty of time checking the mechanics' work. At first they saw Diana's presence as needless interference, but when she pointed out that they were trying to attach the landing gear backwards, they accepted her as a helpful part of their team.

When at last the job was completed, and the run-up of the Lycoming engine went well, the plane was towed to the little airstrip. She hadn’t logged any flying time in the previous year, and, feeling rusty, acquainted
herself with the craft by taxiing up and down a few times. When she became satisfied with the controls and the performance of the engine, she had the tank topped off and a windsock erected. Before the first flight, she noted with satisfaction that the breeze was directly up the runway, minimizing concern regarding crosswinds.

Before she climbed into the plane for its maiden flight, Max put a white silk scarf around her neck, saying, “Every aviator wears one of these; don’t ask me why.”

Diana replied, “Boss, these were worn mainly by wartime pilots to minimize chafing of their necks because they constantly had to turn their heads in search of the enemy. My eyes will be riveted on either the horizon or the instruments until I get used to flying this thing.  But thanks. If I have to make a forced landing, perhaps it will come in handy as a signal flag or with the natives as a barter item.”

The L-5, weighing just a ton, and powered by 185 horses, needed only half the short strip to become airborne, true to its nickname, “Grasshopper.” Diana's pilot’s license covered only the horsepower range from zero to ninety, but anticipating the added torque from the Lycoming engine, she gave extra rudder correction on takeoff at full power. Once in the air, the plane handled beautifully, much to her relief.

As she turned off the carburetor heat, continuing her climb, she was enthralled by the sight around her. The crater of the nearby volcano towering on her right contained the deepest blue water she had ever seen, rivaling the color of the depths of Lake Tahoe in the Sierras on the California-Nevada border. Far to the northwest was a snow-capped peak, partially shrouded in clouds, which she knew had to be Kilimanjaro, and in the middle distance, Mount Meru, with its large crater.

She practiced some air work, becoming acquainted with the Stinson’s flight characteristics. With the proper trim, she found that it would virtually fly itself. Some time was spent in “Touch and go” landings and take-offs, until she was happy with her competence on that short little strip. The sun was low in the west by then.

Time to come in, she thought, but first, the radio, which she had forgotten. Switching on the two-way set, and waiting a little for its vacuum tubes to warm up, she pressed the “Send” button. Elated with the flight, she facetiously announced, “This is Impervium One, calling Oil-can, come in!” After two more tries, she was beginning to feel some annoyance at there being no response from the camp.

No one was in the tent with the radio at the time, and the only ears listening were those of Dragunov in his office in Dar. “Impervium!” He exclaimed, “What could that mean?” Obviously, he had never had the opportunity of seeing the “Buck Rogers” comic strip of the Thirties.

The hot African day was ending as Diana banked for her final approach. An orange sun was just dipping below the distant mountains, and the air was taking on a refreshing coolness. This was the time she always remembered as her favorite experience in flying: Approaching the landing strip in the still air of early evening, with the ground skimming smoothly just below, followed by a perfect three-point landing. Taxiing the plane back to the downwind end of the strip, she turned it into the wind and cut the engine. As she stepped down from the plane, she was greeted by hearty congratulations from her coworkers and handed a cold beer. Diana held up the foaming brew and toasted the appreciative mechanics for their good work. She didn’t dream that the radio transmission had been monitored, or that the operation would be under surveillance by so many.

The very next day, Diana was needed to fly the bag of mail to Dar for posting. Happy to get some cross-country experience, she took off and headed east. She had thoroughly familiarized herself with the region, enjoying the countryside below. In good weather, navigating by “pilotage,” as it is called, was a delight.  She loved maps and the land passing slowly beneath her was just as she had envisioned after studying them.
Let us hope the good weather holds up,
she thought
, I’ve never gotten into instrument flying
.

Dar

The visibility remained perfect all the way, and after obtaining radio clearance from the tower at the Dar-es-Salaam airport, she made a routine landing, taxiing over to the tie-down area reserved for transient private craft. The little terminal had a coffee shop and a post office, making the visit to the capital a one-stop affair.

She reviewed her route for the return flight over coffee. When she looked up from the map, she saw the tall blond man who had sold them the L-5. She hadn’t liked him before, and despite the great performance of the plane, she still didn’t like him. He was staring at her with those glacial blue eyes.
God
, she thought, shivering a little despite the heat,
that’s one cold customer
. Before she could speculate further, he sat down next to her, leering a little. He introduced himself as the Minister of Mines and Oil Exploration for Tanganyika. She had heard that before. An Afrikaaner using perfect Oxford English? She thought that odd. Not even a hint of the Voortrekker accent. To her, it was another clue that he was a phony.

“I’m delighted to see that you are using the aircraft we arranged for you, and I watched you land. Very smooth.”

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