8: FINGERS IN THE BROTH

Dondragmer, dismissing as negligible the chance that one of his missing helmsmen might be directly underneath, had ordered his scientists to set up the test drill near the main lock and get a sample of the ice. This established that the puddle in which the Kwembly was standing had frozen all the way to the bottom in at least one spot. It might be hoped that this would not apply directly under the hull, where neither heat nor ammonia could escape so rapidly; but the captain vetoed the suggestion of a slanting bore into this region. That did seem to be the most likely whereabouts of the missing helmsmen. They had been at work there and it was hard to imagine how they could have failed to see the freeze coming if they had been anywhere else. There was no obvious way to get in touch with them, however. The Kwembly’s plastic hull would transmit sound, of course; rapping would have solved the problem if it had not been for the mattress. On the off chance that hull sounds might be heard even through its bulk, Dondragmer ordered a crewman to go from bow to stern on the lowest deck, tapping with a pry bar every few feet. The results were negative, which meant inconclusive. There was no way to tell whether there was no one alive below to hear or no penetration of the sound or simply no way for those below to reply. Another group was outside working at the ice but the captain had already learned that progress would be slow. Even with Mesklinite muscular strength little was being accomplished. Tools about the size of a human machinist’s center punch, wielded by fifteen-inch, twenty-pound caterpillars, would take a long time to get around some two hundred and fifty feet of hull circumference to an unknown depth. They would take even longer if detailed chipping around drivers, trucks, and control lines were to be necessary, as seemed likely. Besides all this, the second helicopter was aloft again with Reffel again at its controls. The communicator was still aboard and the human beings were examining as carefully as Reffel himself the landscape revealed by the little machine’s lights. They were also cursing as heartily as the pilot the length of Dhrawn’s nights; this one had well over six hundred hours yet to go and, until the sun rose, really quick and effective searching would be impossible. To be helpful to either Mesklinite eyes or the video pick-up of the communicator, the lights had to be held to a rather narrow beam, covering a circle only a few hundred feet across. Reffel was flying a slow zigzag course which swept this circle back and forth across the valley as he moved slowly westward. At the station far above, the televised image on his screen was being recorded and reproduced for the benefit of topographers. These were already working happily on the structure of an intermittent stream valley under forty Earth gravities. Of the search for the missing Kervenser, little could be expected for some time; but pure information was coming in so no one was complaining, not even the Mesklinites. Dondragmer was not exactly worried about his first officer and helmsman, since he couldn’t really worry. It would be fair to say that he was concerned: but he had done all he could about the missing crewmen and having done it, his attention had turned elsewhere. He had two principal things on his mind. He would have liked information about how soon the ice was likely to melt, compared with how soon another flood might arrive. He would also have given even more for a workable suggestion on how to get rid of the ice quickly and safely. He had expressed both wishes to the human beings as well as to his own scientists, though he had made it clear to the latter that he was not demanding a crash program. The search for ideas could be combined with, or even subordinated to, the basic research they were carrying on. Dondragmer was not exactly cold-blooded, but his sense of values included the notion that even one’s final act should be a useful one. The human reaction to this remarkably objective and inhumanly calm behavior was mixed. The weather men and planetologists took it for granted. Most of them probably weren’t even aware of the Kwemb/y’s predicament, much less of the missing Mesklinites. Easy Hoffman, who had stayed on watch after bringing Barlennan up to date as Aucoin had directed, was not surprised. If she had any emotional reaction so far, it was one of respect for the captain’s ability to avoid panic in a personally dangerous situation. Her son felt very differently about it. He had been released temporarily from duty in the aerology lab by McDevitt, who, as a tactful and sympathetic person, had been aware of the friendship developing between the boy and Beetchermarlf. Benj had become a fixture in the communication room as a result. He had watched quietly while arrangements were being made by Dondragmer to dispatch the helicopter and the ice-chipping crews. He had even been somewhat interested in the exchange between the human and Mesklinite scientists. McDevitt had been a little reluctant to risk more weather predictions, feeling that his professional reputation had taken jolts enough recently, but he promised to do his best. When all these matters had been settled and Dondragmer seemed willing to do nothing but lie on his bridge and wait on events, the boy grew uneasy. Patience, the closest human equivalent to the Mesklinite reaction now being displayed, was not yet one of his strong points. For some minutes he shifted uneasily in his seat before the screens, waiting for something to happen. Finally, he could restrain himself no longer. “If no one has any immediate material to send, is it all right for me to talk to Don and his scientists?” he asked. Easy glanced at him, and then at the others. The men shrugged or otherwise gestured indifference, so she nodded. “Go ahead. I don’t know whether any of them are in a mood for casual chatter, but the worst they’ll do is tell you they aren’t.” Benj didn’t waste time explaining that he was not going to indulge in chatter, casual or otherwise. He switched his microphone to Dondragmer’s bridge set and began to talk. “Don, this is Benj Hoffman. You have nothing but a bunch of sailors chipping away the ice at the Kwembly’s bow. There is a lot of energy in your power units, more than a planetful of Mesklinites could put out by muscle in a year. Have your scientists thought of using converter output either to run that test drill for moving ice, or in some sort of heater? “Second, are your sailors just removing ice, or are they specifically trying to get down underneath to find Beetchermarlf and Takoorch? I know it’s important to get the Kwembly loose, but the same ice will have to be taken out sometime anyway. It seems to me there’s a good chance that some of the water under the ship hasn’t frozen yet, and that your two men are still alive in it. Are you tunneling, or just ditching?” Some of the human listeners frowned slightly at the boy’s choice of words, but no one saw fit to interrupt or even comment. Most of those who heard glanced at Easy and decided against saying anything which might be interpreted as criticism of her son. Some, as it happened, did not feel critical anyway; they had wanted to ask similar questions but had not quite wanted to be heard at it. As usual in conversations between the station and Dhrawn, Benj had plenty of time while waiting for the answer to think of other things he might have asked or said, and of better ways in which he might have put the things he did say. Most of the adults knew from experience what was going on in his mind at this point; some were amused; all were to some degree sympathetic. Several bet that he would not be able to resist the temptation to send a reworded version of his message before the answer came back. When Dondragmer’s response came from the speaker with Benj still silent no one actually cheered, but those who knew Easy best could read and understand the satisfaction in her expression. She had not dared to bet, even with herself. “Hello, Benj. We’re doing all we can, both for the helmsmen and my first officer. I’m afraid there is no way to apply ship’s power to any of the tools. The converters produce electric current and also supply rotating torque fields to the truck motors, as I am sure you know, but none of our ordinary equipment can use this, just the helicopters, some of the research equipment in the laboratory, and the lights. Even if we could work out a way to apply the drive motors to digging, we can?t get at them; they?re all under the ice. You must remember, Benj, that we deliberately chose to remain as independent as possible of really complex equipment. Just about everything we have on the planet which we couldn?t make ourselves is directly concerned with your research project.? Ib Hoffman was not present to hear that sentence, which was unfortunate; later he spent a long time trying to make sure of its exact wording from his son?s memory. “I know that, but—” Benj fell silent; none of the words he wanted to say seemed to have ideas under them. The lights, he knew, could not be used as heaters; they were solid state electroluminescent devices, not arcs or resistance bulbs. They had, after all, been designed not only to last indefinitely but to operate in Dhrawn’s atmosphere, with its free oxygen and enormous pressure range, without killing the Mesklinites. If Beetchermarlf had realized this he might have wasted less time, though he might not have accomplished any more. “Can’t you, can’t you just run the current from a converter through some heavy wires, and melt the ice with the heat? Or even run it straight through the water? There must be plenty of ammonia left — it would surely conduct.” Again there was a pause, while Benj hunted for flaws in his own suggestions and the message flashed its way across emptiness. “I’m not sure I know enough about that sort of physics, though I suppose Borndender and his men would,” Dondragmer replied doubtfully. “More to the point, I don’t know what we’d use for wires and I don’t know what current would flow. I know that when the power units are connected to regular equipment like lights or motors there is automatic safety control but I have no idea of how that works or whether it would work on a simple, direct, series circuit. If you’ll find out from your engineers what sort of risk we’d be running, I’ll be glad of the information but I still don’t know what we’d use to carry the current. There just isn’t much metal in the Kwembly. Most of our maintenance supplies are things like rope and fabric and lumber. Certainly there’s nothing that’s meant to carry heavy electrical current. You may be right about using the ice itself as a conductor, but do you think it would be a good idea with Beetchermarlf and Takoorch somewhere under it? Although I can see they wouldn’t be right in the circuit, I’m still a little uncertain that they’d be safe. There again one of you people could probably help out. If you can, if we can get enough detailed information from you to plan something really promising, I’ll be glad to try it. Until that happens, I can only say we’re doing all we can. I’m as concerned about the Kwembly, and Kervenser, and Beetchermarlf, and Takoorch as you can possibly be.” The captain’s closing sentence was not entirely true, though the error was not intentional. He did not really grasp how a friendship could become at all close in a short time and without direct contact between the parties; his cultural background included neither an efficient mail service nor amateur radio. The concept of a microphone relationship developing emotional weight may not have been completely strange to him: he had, after all, been with Barlennan years before when Charles Lackland had accompanied the Bree by radio across thousands of miles of Mesklin’s oceans; still, real friendship was, to him, in a different category. He had been only conventionally regretful at the news of Lackland’s death years later. Dondragmer knew that Benj and the younger helmsman had been talking to each other a great deal, but he had not overheard much of their conversation and would probably not have fully understood the feelings involved even if he had. Fortunately Benj did not realize this, so he had no reason to doubt the captain’s sincerity. However, he was not satisfied with either the answer or the situation. It seemed to him that far too little was being done specifically for Beetchermarlf; he had only been told about this. He could not participate in the help. He could not even see very much of it happening. He had to sit and wait for verbal reports. Many human beings both more mature and more sedate by nature than Benj Hoffman would have had trouble enduring that situation. His feelings showed clearly enough in his next words, as far as the human hearers were concerned. Easy made a half-completed gesture of protest. Then she controlled herself; it was too late, and there was always the chance that the Mesklinite would not read as much into the words and tone as the speaker’s mother had. “But you can’t just sprawl there and do nothing!” Benj exclaimed. “Your men could be drowning this very second. Do you know how much air they had in their suits?” This time temptation won. Realization of what he had said caught up with him within seconds, and in less than half a minute he had what he hoped were better chosen words on their way to Dhrawn. “I know you’re not doing nothing but I just don’t see how you can simply wait around for results. I’d have to go outside myself and chip ice or something, but I can’t, up here.”

“I have done all that can be done in the way of starting rescue action,” Dondragmer’s response to the first part of the message finally arrived. “There is no need to worry about the air for many hours yet. We don’t respond to its lack as I understand you human beings do. Even if the hydrogen concentration goes too low for them to stay conscious, their body machinery will just slow down more and more for several eights of hours. No one knows just how long and it probably isn’t the same for everyone. You needn’t worry about their — drowning — I think was the word you used, if I have guessed its meaning correctly. “All the tools we have are in use. There would be no way for me to help outside if I did go, and it would take me longer to get reports from Reffel through your people. Perhaps you can tell me how his search for Kervenser is coming on. I assume that nothing meaningful has turned up, since the light from his flier is still visible from here and his flight pattern has not changed. Perhaps there is description you could pass on to me. I?d like to know as much about this region as possible.? Easy once again stifled an exclamation before it could be noticed by Benj. As the boy shifted his attention to the screen carrying the helicopter’s signal, she wondered whether Dondragmer were merely trying to keep her son out of his figurative hair or whether he had some real grasp of the human need to be busy and feel useful. The latter seemed unlikely but even Easy Hoffman, who probably knew Mesklinite nature better than any other human being then alive, was not sure. Benj had not been watching the other screen at all and had to ask whether anything had been happening. One of the observers replied briefly that all anyone had seen had been a surface of pea-to-house-sized cobbles, interrupted by frozen pools similar to the one holding the Kwembly. There had been no sign of the other helicopter or its pilot. No one really expected any for some time. The search had to be slow to be complete. If Kervenser had actually crashed this close to his starting point the accident would probably have been seen from the cruiser. The little fliers did carry lights and Kervenser had certainly been using his. Benj relayed this information to Dhrawn, then threw in an obvious question of his own. “Why is Reffel making such a slow and careful search so close to you? Wasn’t Kervenser at least watched out of sight?” The delayed response provided a little relief for the boy’s feeling of helplessness. “He was, Benj. It seemed more reasonable to make a complete coverage centering here and starting outward, which would also have the advantage of providing more complete data for your scientists. If they can wait for the information, please tell Reffel I said to fly straight west along the valley until he can just see my bridge light, then resume the search pattern at that point.”

“Sure thing, Captain.” The conversation had been in Stennish, so none of the watching scientists had understood it. Benj did not bother to ask their approval before passing on the order in the same language. Reffel seemed to have no trouble understanding Benj’s accent and in due course his little machine headed west. “And what’s happening to our map?” growled a topographer. “You heard the captain,” replied Benj. “I heard something. If I’d understood it I’d have entered an objection but I suppose it’s too late now. Do you suppose when they return they’ll fill in the gap they’re leaving now?”

“I’ll ask Dondragmer,” the boy replied obligingly, but with an uneasy glance toward his mother. She had put on the unreadable expression which he could read all too well. Fortunately, the scientist was already leaving the communication room growling under his breath; and fortunately Benj turned his attention back to Reffel?s screen before Easy lost her gravity. Several other nearby adults who had gleaned the substance of the conversation with Dondragmer were also having trouble keeping their faces straight. For some reason they all enjoyed putting one over on the scientific group. But Benj failed to notice. He was still worried about Beetchermarlf. Dondragmer’s assurance that lack of hydrogen would not be an immediate problem had helped but the idea of the crewmen being frozen solidly into the ice was still bothersome. Even if this took longer to happen under the Kwembly’s hull, it would happen at last. It might even have happened already. It should be possible do something. Heat melts ice. Heat is energy. The Kwembly carried enough energy to lift her out of Dhrawn’s gravity well, though there was no way to apply it to that task. Didn’t the huge vehicle have any sort of heaters in its life-support equipment which could be disassembled and used outside? No. The Mesklinites were unlikely ever to need heat on Dhrawn. Even the parts of the planet where internal heat seemed to be lacking were kept close to fifty degrees absolute by the sun. The regions they would have most to do with for many years yet, such as Low Alpha’s center, were too hot rather than too cold for them. The Kwembly did have refrigeration equipment powered from its fusion converters but as far as Benj knew, it had never been used since the original testing. It was expected to be useful during penetration of the central part of Low Alpha, not scheduled for at least an Earth year yet, possibly even later. The fate of the Esket had made some of the original plans rather shaky. But a refrigerator is a heat pump. Even Benj knew that and at least in theory, most pumps are reversible. This one must have, somewhere outside the cruiser’s hull, a high-temperature section for dumping heat. Where was it? Was it removable? At what temperature did it run? Dondragmer must know. But wouldn’t he have thought of this already? Maybe not. He was far from stupid, but his background wasn’t human. What physics he knew had been picked up from non-Mesklinites long after he was adult. It would not, presumably, be part of the basic stock of knowledge which most intelligent beings lump under the concept of “common sense.” Benj nodded at this thought, spent another second or two reminding himself that even if he made himself look silly this might be worth it and reached for his microphone switch. This time there was no amusement among the surrounding adults as the message pulsed toward Dhrawm. None of those present knew enough about the engineering details of the land-cruisers to answer the questions about the refrigerator heat-dump, but all knew enough physics to be annoyed with themselves for not having thought of the question earlier. They waited for Dondragmer’s answer with as much impatience as Benj. “The refrigerator is one of your solid-state electronic devices which I don’t pretend to understand in detail,” the captain’s words finally reached the station. He was still using his own language, to the annoyance of some of the listeners. “We haven’t had to use it since the acceptance tests; the weather here has sometimes been pretty warm, but not really unbearable. It’s a simple thing to describe; there are metal plates in all the rooms which get cold when we turn the power on in the system. There is a metal bar, a sort of loop, running along each side of the hull up at the top. It starts near the stern, runs forward about half a body-length to the port side of the center-line, crosses over about four body-lengths back of the bridge and goes back along the other side to a point even with its start. It runs through the hull at start and finish, one of the few things that does. I assume that bar must be the heat radiator. I see, as you imply I should, that there must be such a part to the system and that it must be outside. Nothing else seems to qualify. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be further from the ice than it is, even if it runs hot enough to melt it, which I don’t know, offhand. I realize that it could be made as hot as you please by running enough electricity through it but I’m not sure I like the idea of trying to take if off the hull for such a purpose.”

“I suppose it would wreck your refrigeration system, especially if you couldn’t get it back,” agreed Benj. “Still, maybe it’s not that bad. Let me find an engineer who really knows that system. I have an idea. I’ll call you back later.” The boy slid out of his seat without waiting for Dondragmer’s reply, and left the communication room on the run. The moment he was gone, the observers who had not understood the language asked Easy for a summary of the conversation, which she gladly supplied. When Benj returned with an engineer in tow, those in hearing frankly abandoned their jobs to listen. Several heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving must have ascended when it was noted that the newcomer was not a linguist, and the boy was interpreting for him. The two settled into seats before the screens, and Benj made sure he knew what to say before energizing his microphone. “I should tell the captain that most of the fastenings holding the radiator bar to the Kwembly’s skin are sort of nails; they only go a little way into the skin and can be pried out without damaging the hull. It might be necessary to use cement to fasten them back in afterward but the supplies are there. The connections at the rear will have to be cut, though. The alloy isn’t very hard and saws will be able to handle it. Once detached, the bar can be used as a resistance heater simply by pushing its ends into the D.C. holes in a power box. I can tell the captain that there is no danger from a short circuit, since the converters have internal safeties. Is that right, Mr. Katini?”

“That’s it,” the small, grizzled engineer replied with a nod. He was one of those who had helped design and build the land-cruisers and one of the very few human beings actually to spend much time at Mesklin’s three-gravity equator. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble making it clear to Dondragmer, even without translation; I?ll tell him directly if you wish. He and I always got along easily enough in my own language.? Benj nodded acknowledgment of this, but started speaking into his microphone in Stennish. Easy suspected that he was showing off and hoped that it wouldn’t backfire on him too badly but saw no real need to interfere. She had to admit that he was doing a good job of the translation. He must have picked up a great deal from his friend Beetchermarlf. In some ways he was doing better than she would have herself; he was using analogies which should be meaningful to the captain but which would not have occurred to her. When the captain’s answer came back it was in the human tongue. Dondragmer had seen the most probable reason why Benj, rather than the engineer who had provided the information, should be doing the talking. The boy looked a little startled, and confirmed his mother’s suspicions by glancing quickly at her. She carefully kept her eyes on Dondragmer’s screen. “I have the picture,” the Mesklinite’s slightly accented voice came through. He was not always perfectly successful in confining his voice to the human audibility range. “We can detach the refrigerator bar and use it, with a power box, as a heater to melt the ice around the ship. There will be plenty of power in the converter and no danger of blowing it up. Please clear up two points, however. “First, how can we be sure that we can reconnect the bar electrically afterward? I know enough to doubt that cement is the right method. I don’t want to lose the refrigerator system permanently, since Dhrawn is approaching its sun and the weather will be getting warmer. “Second, with the metal carrying a current touching the ice, or dipping into the melted water, will there be any danger to people on, in, or under that water? Will the air suits be protection enough? I suppose they must be pretty good electrical insulators, since they are transparent.” The engineer began to answer at once, leaving Benj to wonder what connection there might be between transparency and electrical conductivity and how Dondragmer, with his background, happened to be acquainted with it. “You can make the connection easily enough. Simply have the metal ends pressed tightly together and use the adhesive to fasten a wrapping of fabric around the joint. You’re right about the glue’s conductance; make sure it doesn’t get between the metal surfaces. “Also, you needn’t worry about electrocuting anyone in an air suit. They’ll be adequate protection. I suspect that it would take a lot of voltage to hurt you people anyway, since your body fluids are non-polar, but I have no experimental proof and I don’t suppose you want any. It occurred to me that you might do better by striking an arc at the surface of the ice, which should have enough ammonia to be a fair conductor. If it works at all, it should work very well. Only it may be too hot for any of your men to stay in the neighborhood and it would have to be controlled carefully. Come to think of it, the procedure would destroy too much of the bar to let you get the system together again afterward. We?d better stick to simple resistance heating, and be satisfied with melting the ice rather than boiling it.? Katini fell silent, and waited for Dondragmer?s answer. Benj was still thinking, and all the others within hearing had their eyes fixed on the captain?s screen. His shift of language had attracted even those who might otherwise have waited patiently for a translation. This was unfortunate from the human viewpoint. Barlennan, later, wrote it off as a stroke of luck. “All right,” Dondragmer’s answer finally came. “We will take off the metal bar and try to use it as a heater. I am now ordering men outside to start detaching the small brackets. I will have one of the communicators set up outside so that you can watch as we cut through the conductors, and check everything before we turn on power. We will work slowly, so that you can tell us if we are doing something wrong before it has gone too far. I don’t like this situation — I don’t like doing anything when I am so unsure of what is happening and what is likely to happen. I’m supposed to be in command here and I can only wish I had learned more of your science and technology. I may have an accurate picture as far as it goes and I’m sure I can trust your knowledge and judgment for the rest but it’s the first time in years I’ve been so uncertain of myself.” It was Benj who answered, beating his mother by a fraction of a second. “I heard you were the first Mesklinite to grasp the general idea of real science and that you were the one who did most to get the College going. What do you mean, you wish you had learned more?” Easy cut in; like Benj, she used Dondragmer’s own language. “You know far more than I do, Don, and you are in command. If you hadn’t been convinced by what Katini told you, you wouldn’t have given those orders. You’ll have to get used to that feeling you don’t like; you’ve just collided with something new again. It’s like that time fifty years ago, long before I was born, when you suddenly realized that the science we aliens were using was just knowledge carried on past the common-sense level. Now you have bumped into the fact that no one, not even a commander, can know everything, and that you sometimes have to take professional advice. Live with it, Don, and calm down!” Easy leaned back and looked at her son, who was the only one in the room to have followed her speech completely. The boy looked startled, almost awestruck. Whatever impression she had made on Dondragmer or would, when her words got to him, she had certainly gotten home to Benjamin Ibson Hoffman. It was an intoxicating sensation for a parent; she had to fight the urge to say more. She was assisted by an interruption in a human voice. “Hey! What happened to the helicopter?” All eyes went to Reffel’s screen. There was a full second of silence. Then Easy snapped, “Benj, report to Dondragmer while I call Barlennan!”

Contents