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There was a barrier and a trimly-uniformed policeman. You can go ahead, of course. No armor, even, so I might as well go back. He turned the Special around. A loose vortex—new. There might be three or four of them, scattered over that many counties. Sisters of the one that had murdered his family—spawn of that damned Number Eleven that that bungling nitwit had tried to blow out.

Into his mind there leaped a picture, wire-sharp, of Number Eleven as he had last seen it, and simultaneously an idea hit him like the blow of a fist. He thought. Really thought, now; intensely and clearly. If he could do it—could actually blow out the atomic flame of an atomic vortex. And grimly, quietly, but alive now in every fiber, he drove back to the city almost as fast as he had come away.

Nor did he offer any comment as his erstwhile assistant went to various lockers and cupboards, assembling coils, tubes, armor, and other paraphernalia. No suicide. The charge of explosive must match, within very narrow limits, the activity of the vortex itself at the instant of detonation; and that activity varies so greatly and so unpredictably that all attempts at accurate extrapolation have failed.

I said a usable formula!

But there are other things. Now nothing can throw me. I can compute all the elements of a sigma curve in nothing flat. A ten-second prediction gives me ten seconds of action. Lensmen did not ordinarily use their Lenses on their Lensless friends, but this was no ordinary occasion. And do you mind if I Lens you on that? The bombs, of course, will be cased in neocarballoy thick enough for penetration.

Then I take off in a shielded armored flying suit, say about here. We can adapt a flitter for bomb-throwing easily enough.

Ebook the vortex

QX, I set my flitter into a projectile trajectory toward the center of disturbance. Twelve seconds away, at about this point here, I take my instantaneous readings, solve the equations of that particular warped surface for some definite zero time. Then, having everything set for zero time, and assuming that the activity is somewhere near my assumed value. I stick around until the sigma curve, extrapolated to zero time, matches one of my bombs.

But do you realize just how busy you are going to be during those ten or twelve seconds? When do you want to start? Like fire, only worse, atomic energy was a good servant, but a very bad master. Man had liberated it before he could really control it. In fact, control was not yet, and probably never would be, perfect. True, all except a minute fraction of one percent of the multitudes of small, tame, self-limiting vortices were perfect servants.

But at long intervals, for some unknown reason—science knew so little, fundamentally, of nuclear reactions—one of them flared, nova-like, into a huge, wild, self-sustaining monster. It ceased being a servant, then, and became a master.

Such flare-ups occurred very infrequently; the trouble was that the loose vortices were so utterly, so damnably permanent. They never went out; and no data were ever obtained. Every living thing in the vicinity of a flare-up died; every instrument and every other solid thing within a radius of hundreds of feet melted down into the reeking, boiling slag of its crater.

Fortunately, the rate of growth was slow—as slow, almost, as it was persistent. But even so, unless something could be done about loose vortices before too many years, the situation would become extremely serious. That was why the Laboratory had been established in the first place.

Nothing much had been accomplished so far. Tractor beams would not hold. Nothing material was of any use. Pressors worked after a fashion—vortices could be moved from one place to another. One or two, through sheer luck, had been blown out by heavy charges of duodecaplylatomate. But duodec had taken many lives; and since it scattered a vortex as often as it fed it, duodec had caused vastly more damage than it had cured.

No end of fantastic schemes had been proposed, of course; of varying degrees of fantasy. Some of them sounded almost practical. Some of them had been tried; some were still being tried. Some, such as the perennially-appearing one of installing a free drive and flinging the whole neighborhood off into space, were perhaps feasible from an engineering standpoint. They were potentially so capable of making things worse, however, that they could not be used except as last-ditch measures.

In short, the control of loose atomic vortices was very much an unsolved problem. Its staff was not large—eight men worked in three staggered eight-hour shifts—but the development of its instrumentation had required hundreds of man-years of intensive research. Cloud glanced at the chart and scowled, for one jagged peak, less than half an hour old, almost touched the top line of the paper. The Lensman ignored as completely as did the observer, if not as flippantly, the distinct possibility that at any moment the observatory and all that it contained might be resolved into their sub-atomic components.

He did not need to spend hours at a calculating machine; at one glance he knew, without knowing how he knew, that no equation could fit that wildly-shifting sigma curve. That means nine point nine six zero kilograms of duodec for my basic, and nine four six two and ten point three five eight as alternates. On the wire? The Lensman and one of the observers helped him into his cumbersome, heavily-padded armor; then all three men went out to the flitter. A tiny speedster, really; a slim torpedo with the stubby wings and the ludicrous tail-surfaces, the multifarious driving-, braking-, side-, top-, and under-jets so characteristic of the tricky, cranky, but ultra-maneuverable breed.

Cloud checked the newly installed triplex launcher, made sure that he knew which bomb was in each tube, and climbed into the tiny operating compartment. The massive door—flitters are too small to have airlocks—rammed shut upon its teflon gaskets, the heavy toggles drove home. A heavily-padded form closed in upon the pilot, leaving only his left arm and his right leg free to move. Cloud shot the flitter into the air and toward the seething inferno which was Loose Atomic Vortex Number One.

The crater was a ragged, jagged hole perhaps two miles from lip to lip and a quarter of a mile in depth. The floor, being largely molten, was almost level except for a depression at the center, where the actual vortex lay. The walls of the pit were steeply, unstably irregular, varying in pitch and shape with the refractoriness of the strata composing them.

Now a section would glare into an unbearably blinding white, puffing away in sparkling vapor. Again, cooled by an inrushing blast of air, it would subside into an angry scarlet, its surface crawling in a sluggish flow of lava. Occasionally a part of the wall might even go black, into pockmarked scoriae or brilliant planes of obsidian. For always, at some point or other, there was a torrent of air rushing into that crater. It rushed in as ordinary air.

It came out, however, in a ragingly uprushing pillar, as—as something else. No one knows exactly what a vortex does to air. Or, rather, the composition of the effluent gases varies as frequently and as unpredictably as does the activity of the vortex.

Thus, the atmosphere emitted from a vortex-crater may be corrosive, it may be poisonous, it may be merely different; but it is no longer the air which we human beings are used to breathing.

As to the vortex itself. Practically all of its frightful radiation lies in those octaves of the spectrum which are invisible to the human eye. Suffice it to say, then, that it was a continuously active atomic reactor, with an effective surface temperature of approximately twenty five thousand degrees Kelvin, and let it go at that.

For the activity level was, and even in its lowest dips remained, well above the figure he had chosen. Distant though he was from the rim of that hellish pit, his skin began to prickle and to burn. His eyes began to smart and to ache. He knew what those symptoms meant: On the other hand, it might blow up any second, too.

There were two schools of mathematical thought upon that point. One held that a vortex, without any essential change in its nature or behavior, would keep on growing bigger until, uniting with the other vortices of the planet, it had converted all the mass of the world into energy. This would of course result in an explosion, the nature and consequences of which this Carlowitz was wont to dwell upon in ghoulishly mathematical glee.

Neither school could prove its point, however—or, rather, each school proved its point with eminently plausible mathematics—and each hated and derided the other, with heat and at length. Neal Cloud, as he studied through his almost opaque defenses that indescribably ravening fireball, that rapacious monstrosity which might very well have come from the very center of the hottest hell of mythology, felt strangely inclined to agree with Carlowitz.

The tiny control room grew hotter and hotter. His skin burned more and his eyes ached worse. He touched a stud and spoke. Two, then, instead of three. Four point nine eight zero and thirteen point nine four zero. You might break out a jar of burn-dressing, too; some fairly warm stuff is leaking through.

Cloud landed. He stripped to the skin and his friends smeared him with the thick, gooey stuff that was not only added protection against radiation, but also a sovereign remedy for new burns. He exchanged his goggles for a heavier, darker pair.

The two bombs arrived and were substituted for two of the original load. Again in air, Cloud found that the activity, while still very high, was not too high for his heaviest bomb, but that it was fluctuating too rapidly.

He could not get even five seconds of trustworthy prediction, to say nothing of ten. So he waited, as close to the horrible center of disintegration as he dared. The flitter hung poised in air, motionless, upon softly hissing under-jets.

Cloud knew to a fraction his height above the ground.

Ebook the vortex

He knew to a fraction his distance from the vortex. He knew the density of the atmosphere and the velocity and direction of the wind. Hence, since he could also read, closely enough, the momentary variations in the cyclonic storms within the crater, he could compute very easily the course and velocity necessary to land the bomb in the exact center of the vortex at any given instant of time.

Therefore Cloud concentrated upon the dials and gauges in front of him; concentrated with every fiber of his being and with every cell of his brain. Suddenly, almost imperceptably, the sigma curve gave signs of flattening out.

Simultaneous differential equations; nine of them. A quadruple integration in four dimensions. No matter—Cloud did not solve problems laboriously, one operation at a time.

Without knowing how he had arrived at it, he knew the answer; just as the Posenian or the Rigellian can perceive every separate component particle of an opaque, three-dimensional solid, but without being able to explain to any Tellurian how his sense of perception works.

By virtue of whatever sense or ability it is which makes a mathematical prodigy what he is, Cloud knew that in exactly seven and three-tenths seconds from that observed instant the activity of the vortex would match precisely the rating of his heaviest bomb.

Another flick of his mental switch and he knew exactly the velocity he would require. His hand swept over the studs, his right foot tramped down hard upon the firing pedal; and, even as the quivering flitter rammed forward under five Tellurian gravities of acceleration, he knew to the thousandth of a second how long he would have to hold that acceleration to attain that velocity.

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