reaches the ship. The—"
Jayjay Kelvin was not ordinarily a man to make long speeches, especially when he knew he was telling someone something that they already knew. But this time, he was beating one of his favorite drums, and he went on with his tirade in a fine flush of fury.
Alas ... poor Jayjay.
Actually, Jayjay Kelvin can't be blamed for his attitude. All he was saying was that it was highly improbable that a spaceship would be hit by a meteor. In one way, he was perfectly right, and, in another, he was dead wrong.
How small must a piece of matter be before it is no longer a meteor?
Fortunately, the big hunks rarely travel at more than about two times ten to the sixth centimeters per second, relative to Sol, in the Solar System. But there are little meteors—very tiny ones—that come in, hell-bent-for-leather, at a shade less than the velocity of light. They're called cosmic rays, but they're not radiation in the strict sense of the word. A stripped hydrogen atom, weighing on the order of three point three times ten to the minus twenty-second grams, rest mass, can come galumping along at a velocity so close to that of light that the kinetic energy is something colossal for so small a particle. Protons with a kinetic energy of ten to the nineteenth electron volts, while statistically rare, are not unusual.
Now, ten million million million electron volts may be a wee bit meaningless to the average man, so let's look at it from another angle.
Consider. According to the well-known formula E = mc2, a single gram of matter, if converted completely into energy, would yield some nine hundred million million million ergs of energy. An atomic bomb yields only a fraction of that energy, since only a small percentage of the mass is converted into energy.
If all of the mass of an atomic bomb were converted into energy, the test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, 'way back in 1945, would probably have been the last such test on Earth; there wouldn't have been anyone around to make a second test.
So what does this have to do with cosmic ray particle? Well, if that atomic bomb had been moving at the velocity with which our ten-to-the-nineteenth-electron-volts proton is moving, it could have been made of sand instead of U235. It would have produced ten thousand million times as much energy as the total disintegration of the rest mass would have produced!
Kinetic energy, my children, has a great deal more potential than atomic energy.
But we digress.
What has all this to do with Jayjay Kelvin?
If Jayjay had been a detective story addict instead of a Western story addict, he would have heard of the HIBK or "Had I But Known" school of detective writing. You know: "Had I But Known that, at that moment, in the dismal depths of a secret underground meeting place, the evil Chuman-Fu was plotting...."
If Jayjay Kelvin had known what was going on a few million miles away from the Pluto-bound Persephone, he would have kept his mouth shut.
The cargo-ship Mordred was carrying a cargo of heavy metals sunward. In her hold were tightly-packed ingots of osmium-iridium-platinum alloy, gold-copper-silver-mercury alloy, and small percentages of other of the heavy metals. The cargo was to be taken to the Asteroid Belt for purification and then shipped Earthward for final disposition. The fact that silver had replaced copper for electrical purposes on Earth was due to the heavy-metals industry on Pluto. Because of Pluto, the American silver bloc had been broken at last.
The Mordred was approaching turnover.
Now, with a gravito-inertial drive, there is really no need to turn a ship over end-for-end as she approaches the mid-point of her trajectory. Since there is no rocket jet to worry about, all that is really necessary is to put the engine in reverse. In fact, the patrol ships of the Interplanetary Police do just that.
But the IP has been trained to take up to five standard gees in an end-to-end flip, and the ships are built to take the stress in both directions. An ordinary cargo ship finds it a lot easier to simply flip the ship over; that way, the stresses remain the same, and the ceiling-floor relationship is constant.
The Mordred had been having a little trouble with her Number Three drive engine, so the drive was cut off at turnover, while the engineer replaced a worn bearing. At the same time, the maintenance officer decided he'd take a look at the meteor-bumper—the plastic outer hull. Since the ship was in free fall, all he had to do was pull himself along one of the beams that supported the meteor-bumper away from the main hull. The end of one of the beams had cracked a part of the bumper hull—fatigue from stress, nothing more, but the hull might as well be patched while the drive was off.
It was a one-man job; the plastic was dense, but under null-gee conditions it was easy to maneuver. The maintenance officer repaired the slight crack easily, wiped the sticky pre-polymer from the fingers of his spacesuit gloves, and tossed the gooey rag off into space. Then he pushed himself back across the vacuum that separated the outer hull from the inner, entered the air lock, and reported that the job was finished. Five minutes later, the Mordred began decelerating toward the distant Asteroid Belt.
Forget the Mordred. The ship is no longer important. Keep your eyes on that rag. It's a flimsy thing, composed of absorbent plastic and gooed up with a little unpolymerized resin, weighing about fifty grams. It is apparently floating harmlessly in space, just beyond the orbit of Uranus, looking as innocuous as a rag can look. But it is moving sunward at eight hundred million centimeters per second.
The Persephone was approaching turnover. The ship's engineer reported that the engines were humming along smoothly, so there was no need to shut them off; the ship would simply flip over as she ran, making her path a slightly skewed, elongated S-curve—a sort of orbital hiccup.
Except that she never quite made it through the hiccup. The ship was almost perpendicular to her line of flight when she was sideswiped.
Her meteor detectors hadn't failed; they were still functioning perfectly. But meteor detectors are built to look for solid chunks of metal and rock—not thin, porous bits of cloth.
The rag had traveled a good many millions of miles since it had been cast overboard; it was moving sunward with almost the same velocity with which the Persephone was moving Plutowards. The combined velocities were such that, if it had hit the Persephone dead on, it would have delivered close to seventeen thousand kilowatt-hours of energy in one grand burst of incandescence.
Fortunately, the tip of the rag merely gave the ship a slap on the tail as it passed. The plastic meteor-bumper wasn't built to take that sort of thing. The plastic became an expanding cloud of furiously incandescent gas in a small fraction of a second, but the velocity of that bit of rag was so great that the gas acted as a solid block of superheated fury as it leaped across the hundred feet of vacuum which separated the bumper hull from the inner hull.
A rocket-driven missile carrying a shaped-charge warhead weighing several hundred pounds might have done almost as much damage.
Jayjay Kelvin moved his arms to pick himself up off the floor and found that there was no necessity for doing so. He was floating in the air of the lounge, and, strictly speaking, there was no floor anyway. He opened his eyes and saw that that which had been the floor was now just another wall, except that it had chairs bolted to it. It rose on his left, reached the zenith, and set on his right, to be replaced by another wall,