I’ll eventually publish another collection of shorts when I have enough, like “Common Ground and other Stories”. But for now…
Ball and Chain
“It’s this damn Slump,” Tim Kirkland grumped. “There’s no market for even Earth mined materials, how can Luna possibly develop an economy without exports? If it wasn’t for defense they’d have probably pulled back and mothballed the Moon bases already. For sure they would have if they weren’t scared the other fellows would snatch the whole Moon. When things get back to normal and scarcity kicks in again things will open up. I’ve had my application in for Luna now for seven years. I’m way ahead of most folks in the Queue.”
“Are you applied with the Americans, Indians or the Chinese?” Aaron asked skeptically.
“The Americans and Indians both actually. The Chinese wouldn’t take my reservation without a full deposit, and an assurance I wasn’t signed on with anyone else, snotty little buggers.”
“I’m tired of hearing The Slump, The Slump, as an excuse for everything,” Aaron growled. They should tell the truth and call it the Greater Depression. You’re thirty-two years old man. How long has it been The Slump for you?”
“Call it twenty, twenty-six years. Depends on if you count from 2008 or 2014. I remember as a kid we had it pretty good. I was an only, but still, we used to go out to eat a couple times a week. My mom and my dad both kept a car. My God those were cars too, big lumbering steel beasts, built like a battle tank.”
“Let’s be honest. Is there any guarantee it won’t still be The Slump, twenty years forward from now? Other than the same promises just before every election?”
“Prosperity is just ahead. It’s as certain as global warming,” he said sarcastically. The continued cold weather was as responsible for the prolonged slump in the economy as any political stupidity. Nobody had ever disavowed the carbon treaties and such, they simply stopped talking about it. Maybe they hoped people would forget, but they hadn’t, especially the cartoonists.
“You could save enough to go by the time you are forty likely. If you don’t marry and if you don’t get caught with your ‘investments’.”
Tim made a squelching motion with his hand and grimaced. It was a family burger place, and noisy, but he hadn’t pulled the battery on his phone, and you just never knew when you might be monitored at random. He pulled it now, and pulled the foil faced paper from under his fries and wrapped the phone in that too.
“My, you are getting paranoid,” Aaron marveled. “Don’t you have your minders on the take, so you don’t have to worry about such things?”
“You can buy off your security folks, but it gets expensive. I’d rather make the effort, and keep my profits maximized. Anyway, you know I don’t just want to take a two week lift as a tourist. I want to live up there, maybe even beyond the Moon if that happens in my lifetime.”
“If you’re that much of a risk taker I’m encouraged. I wanted to run a solution past you, but wasn’t sure you’d have the guts to consider it.”
“If that’s your idea of drawing me into a warm feeling of camaraderie, you need to work on your presentation. If I’m such a cowardly lout, you can find someone else better I’m sure.”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t know anyone as eager to go to the Moon, except my nephew Eddy, and he’s just turned twelve, so that’s a bit of a wait too. What if I had a way to open up travel, not just for you, but for everyone? We can’t change the economy, but there are other factors in the equation to alter. Changes that would do a world of good for quite a few people. I have a little development I’ve been working on. I have a patent application in on it right now, actually. It can change the expense factor of lifting to the Moon, and everywhere else above Clarke orbit too.”
“Lift vehicles are a very mature technology,” Tim objected. “Nobody is willing to build nuclear rockets, for political reasons. I suspect they have a few actually, but if they do it’s damn black, and likely to stay that way. I know you do fiber design, and nano fabrication for the University. I’m pretty sure you’re the smartest guy I know, Aaron. But I don’t see even you designing an anti-gravity machine in that home workshop of yours.”
“Not at all. But you are aware they have had materials now for about five years, which could be used to make a Beanstalk?”
“As in “Fountains of Paradise”? A humongous ball and chain on the Earth? I read it would take about fifty-Trillion dollars to put a real one up, and that was US dollars, not Canadian. I can just imagine every jihadist in the world salivating at the idea of getting a tactical nuke on an elevator car, if they did build the thing. I don’t like to characterize us as the poor cousins, but if it gets built it will be the Americans. Canada doesn’t have that kind of wealth free to use, and it will take a huge application of military and political power to run the thing. You have to buy off some nation on the equator, and then pour enough troops and equipment around the base of the thing so nobody thanks you for building it, and then nationalizes it. I can’t think of anywhere around the Earth’s waist I’d want to trust.”
“Yes, but, it was a Russian, Tsiolkovsky, who developed the concept long before it was popular in fiction. But a ball and chain is restrictive, this is more like a lifeline thrown in stormy seas. I’d like you to give me your word that you will hold this closely confidential, and I’ll to invite you over tomorrow evening to demo a few things for you.”
“Well,” Tim huffed, raising his eyebrows. “I’m not used to such gravity and formality, but you have my word as a gentleman, if such a thing can truly exist today.”
“It does if you wish it,” Aaron assured him. “I’ll pick up the tab today too,” he offered and swiped his paycard for both meals.
* * *
“I’m here to see the stuff,” Tim growled in his best gangster style when Aaron opened the door.
“What, no body guards? No evil henchmen waiting in the car?” The absurdity of a wiseguy named Timmy made him smile, but he’d never tell his friend that.
“I prefer minions. They’re much more cost effective and low key.”
Tim hung his jacket, and stood on his boot heels in turn, to step out of his boots. He’d been here before. It wasn’t a spoken house rule, but if he left his boots on Aaron’s eyes kept going back to them, worrying about his crème carpets.
“I hope you can wrap this up in time for the game.”
“Who’s playing, uh, you mean hockey I assume?”
“No, Bocce Ball,” he said, and rolled his eyes.
“I don’t think I have any beer, you’ll get cross with me.”
“I have twelve cooling in the car. They won’t freeze for another hour.”
“Let’s get downstairs then. They lose all their fizz if you pop them slushy.”
* * *
“This is a pair of die maker’s stereo magnifiers,” Aaron offered, putting his on to show Tim how. “You turn the knob on the left to adjust the magnification. The right knob adjusts the little headlight at the temple pieces. The over shade is to protect from laser, so don’t be tipping it up.”
He picked up small bit of metal with a frosty stone set in it. “This is a diamond anvil with a nice tapered hole drilled through it. I have a piece of Bucky wrap that is strong enough to build a space elevator looped through the diamond. And the anvil slips into this handle,” he said, sliding a hand grip back until the anvil snugged in hollow on his side, “so you can pull on it without slicing your fingers off like a cheese cutter.” A tube surrounded the line on the other side.
“That’s so thin, do you loop that through, and tie a knot by hand? I’d never feel it.”
“You’d feel it when it cut your fingers. The line is braided of nine smaller fibers. You clamp it two places, push them towards each other to spread them open, and interweave the end back into itself. Now, this is as far as the line reaches from the wall over there.” He pulled on the handle and it didn’t come past the edge of the bench he was using. Tim squinted along the line in the direction of an anchor set in the concrete wall. He could see a few centimeters of it finer than a hair, and then it was lost to sight off toward the wall.
“I’m going to have you snap this, but I want to anneal a place near the anvil. If it snaps at the other end the whole thing can whip back and cut you. When it breaks near the handle it will fly toward the wall.” He pulled a pocket laser and laid the tiny line across a graphite block. He pushed the switch repeatedly and a red spot glowed hot each time. “There, pull on it a bit, see how strong it is.”
Tim picked up the hand piece and pulled it. It came to a definite stop, but was free to move side to side. The line to the wall was long enough you couldn’t feel the arc. Tim leaned until his weight was hanging on it.
“Amazing stuff.” Tim said. “There is no give to it at all.”
“Now go ahead and give it a good jerk. I can break it, so I know you can.”
Tim took a stance, so he wouldn’t overbalance, and turned his hand around with the protective tube sticking up through the middle of his fingers. He gave one pretty good jerk, but it didn’t snap. He backed his swing up a bit further, and snapped it clean with one hard pull. He followed through but didn’t lose control.
“Tough stuff,” was all he acknowledged.
“Indeed. Now this is the new thing I brought you to see,” he said picking up a similar but bulkier hand piece. “It is a bit thinner so crank up the magnification because I want you to see it better”
Tim leaned in and adjusted the viewer.
“See the little silver wedge pushed in the hole with this one? That’s an electrical contact. Now observe the surface color of the thread.” He flipped a switch that stuck out of the grip. “Did you see that?”
“It went from dull black to kind of shiny, I think.”
“Yes. That’s exactly right. Now I want you to do the same thing as before, except…”
Tin snapped the line taunt with everything he had.
“I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
The handle ripped out of his hand, and he doubled over his abused wrist, holding it against his waist with his other hand.
“Holy shit. Nothing should be that strong,” Tim objected hopping up and down a little.
“Did you break it?” Aaron asked concerned.
“I didn’t hear a crack, but I think I better put some ice around it and watch it a bit. You can damn well go out and bring the beer in. You could have warned me a little faster Dude.”
They stayed upstairs, and watched Toronto starting against Detroit. The wrist didn’t turn funny colors or swell quickly so they concluded he didn’t break anything. The beer and two Napoxen helped.
“I’m thinking about it,” Tim said. “I still see problems.”
“I know a few. I have something else to show you after the game.”
“To hell with the game,” Tim said getting up. “Toronto zero, Detroit two. They have the better goalie and that’s how it will wrap up. I knew that last week. If it doesn’t I’m down six-thousand dollars in the morning. Try not to hurt me with this next demo.”
“I know you are concerned about a site for a Beanstalk. I have a model prepared to show you a concept. Here we have our globe.” It was a globe too, taken off the usual mount and put on an electric motor shaft.
“This is one possible base location,” he pointed out a screw firmly driven into Ecuador on the globe.
“Here is our counter weight,” he produce a golf ball with an eyelet screwed into it, and a straw colored thread dangling. “The tread is just Kevlar, but it is our cable.” He looped the thread around the screw and tied it. The tread reached all the way around the globe, and just enough to hang it back over the screw.
“Stand back, I cracked myself on the knee with this first time I spun it.”
“You’re dangerous man.”
Aaron retreated to a switch, and turned it on. The globe spun, and flung the ball out. It whipped around the globe in a blur until he killed the switch again and it dropped and bounced to a stop.
“Yep, that’s just what I pictured,” Tim agreed.
“But that isn’t the only way to do it,” Aaron told him pulling a screwdriver out of his pocket. He took the screw out of Ecuador and started turning it into a hole he hadn’t noticed. It was Toronto.
“But, you can’t do that,” Tim objected.
“Would you rather Vancouver?” Aaron asked pleasantly. “It has a better climate I admit. And you don’t have to bring shipping for the elevator up the Saint Lawrence. But there are financial reasons and political considerations. I certainly don’t want it in Quebec, and it’s about a tossup for shipping grain off the plains. I suspect a great deal of rye and oats will be riding up the thing.”
“That’s not what I mean. You can’t just screw the bloody thing on anywhere. That’s cheating.”
“Why?” Aaron asked him. “Oh it might get a bit difficult above sixty degrees north. But at Toronto you have significant angular velocity.”
“Well, you know, it’s out of balance. It has to hang off the center straight.”
“Ah,” Aaron sighed agreeably, You’re going to hang another on the other side so we don’t unbalance the earth and make it wobbly all over the place. I expect some die hard environmentalist to bring that up actually. I didn’t think you’d be so Green.”
“Well not wobble,” Tim insisted indignantly. “I know the elevator won’t mass that much compared to the Earth, But it won’t pull straight. This is just a shell. The real Earth pulls with gravity, so the line of force pulling on the counterweight down,” he demonstrated with his hands, “won’t be in line with the tension on the line,” he asserted, very happy with himself.
“And the counter weight would not be exactly at the Clarke orbit. In fact it would be just a hair more difficult to match a spaceship with it, and dock than on a perfect equatorial orbit,” he went on and finished repositioning the screw. “But then too, a lot of other users in Earth orbit might be just as happy not to have this huge battering ram of a counter weight whizzing about the planet, right in the plane where they want to naturally orbit free floating objects.” he pointed out.
“But tell me. If there was no gravity involved where would the counterweight float when you spun up the system?”
“Right in the lane of rotation. At right angles to a line through the poles.”
“Okay, ” Aaron agreed, retreating and flipping the motor on again, “pretty much like this right?”
The ball zoomed around in a plane that passed through the latitude of Toronto.”Now gravity is pulling the golf ball down slightly compared to the force of the thread pulling it. It must be dipped down toward the floor a half degree or so. You can see it dip lower as it spins down to a stop. It just swings over on the thread a bit and finds an equilibrium position right?”
“Too small to see, but yeah, it must be,” he agreed.
“Now if we were talking about using material that was strained almost to the yield point, I’d worry about having it in a slight arc, with side forces on it. The primary problem has always been the weight of the cable hanging on itself, not the tension, or forces of cars climbing up and down. My new material is so much stronger there’s no need to worry about that. We’ll have a good engineering margin like proper designers know is necessary. So why is it a problem if the cable climbs off into the sky at a bit of an angle?
“Crap, I feel stupid.”
“Not at all. We just changed a part of the equation everyone assumed was a constant.”
“Let’s go back upstairs. I need another beer.”
* * *
“Can you tell me in short sensible terms why it’s so strong?
“It’s a form of Bucky too. You have a long bucky-tube, and deliberately create regular defects on the side walls. There is a high temperature superconductor inside, and it cross links through these defects, and locks the fibers together. It’s similar to how wool felts up when you pack it, but on a molecular scale. You work harden them by moving them around, and more of these side opening line up and bond. So it grows stronger as you load it and unload it, and the modulus decreases. It has about the same strength as regular bucky tube material,” which as you saw is not too shabby.
“But if you hook a battery up it will actively resist being elongated. It actually pulls back against the force applied. Pull more, it draws more current. You reach a threshold where it can’t draw any more current, and it fails spectacularly. Obviously using it to build, you need a very reliable power source, to trust something with actively powered mechanical properties. You start off with a big roll of bucky with the material inside, and keep rolling it down thinner and thinner. The excess ‘stuffing’ is squeezed out. At the end you have to draw it through diamond dies, in an intense magnetic field. Have another beer.”
* * *
“Would you like to help me build it?” Aaron asked. “I mean, you’re going there anyway, right?”
“I’d love to see you build it, but you need some real high-powered business help to bring something like that to market. You need investment bankers, and lawyers, and people I don’t know.”
“You want to go yourself. This will open the road faster than anything on the horizon. You can go while you are still a fairly young man. It will be all the other applications that pay for the Beanstalk. That will be your first work, and likely for a long time. Somebody else I wouldn’t be sure they wouldn’t get bogged down with all the other applications, and never get around to building the Stalk. I’ll have other people for various things, but I want you for my business guy.”
“This is going to change everything about bridges, and body armor, and rotating devices, pressure vessels, high pressure chemistry, synthetic diamonds, and other materials. All that has to be started, and the use of it known and standard design, before the cable goes up, for people to trust it, or indeed to even believe it will work. I’m willing to let you have the majority ownership of the Beanstalk as a separation bonus, when we are done. By that time you won’t want to work for me anymore, and I will have so much income from the other uses, it’s silly to think I can want for anything.”
“Aaron, you are talking Billions of dollars to own an orbital elevator. I don’t have the kind of capital to start to do a mailing to promote this thing.”
“So we start with lesser applications. You are good with business, I’m not. At least there isn’t any cloud hanging over my rights. I was smart enough to document all my work on this. Every time I logged on the computer, and the time line of every physical experiment I did. There is not a dollar of Government money, or an hour of University time involved. I own the intellectual property clear. I’ve even kept an even more detailed log of my work for the University, so if they say – “Well, you must have worked on it sometime.” I can say – Here, show me where it fit in. Was it while I lectured all day on April 8, 2019? Just let’s have one thing clear,” Aaron said and looked at him hard. “You try to screw me out of the whole thing, and I’ll cut the living heart out of your chest, and let you die looking at the bloody thing.” He was holding his hand out cupped between them, and looking Tim right in the eye.
Tim looked at his palm like he could see it beating there. “Partner, those are the kind of contract terms a guy doesn’t forget. But I’m still in.”
* * *
“I thought twelve years was wildly optimistic,” Aaron said. “Ten years was fantastic. You did a fine job, Tim.”
“I thought twenty years was downright depressing,” Tim countered. “I didn’t want to ride a wheelchair up the damn thing.”
They both stood and watched the dots of elevator cars accelerating away up the shiny black column. So huge it seemed unreal, and the fact it tilted off the vertical over toward the South still looked strange to Tim.
“I thought we’d have more resistance, especially from the Americans, but everything fell into place, especially the last couple years.”
Tim just looked at him with that superb poker face.
“What? You know I can’t read you when you ice over like that. But it tells me you have something going on in there, you don’t want to reveal.”
“The government got a lot more cooperative two years ago. Remember when General McPherson was retired?”
“They called me in the morning you flew to Hong Kong. You remember that trip?”
“Sure, we were having trouble getting cobalt. The guy who controlled it was there.”
“McPherson had a bunch of Air Force goons, came by and give me one of those invitations you can’t turn down, to go talk with him.”
Aaron thought a minute and nodded. “Now I remember, I got the appointment, and if I took the fast plane I could be there for breakfast, and head right back. You weren’t in your office and neither was Madeline, so I called a car and hustled to the airport. I knew you had stuff to do anyway, so you wouldn’t have come along.”
“You remember when you called me next?”
Aaron made a show of thinking. “It’s been two years. From the hotel?” he asked.
“Nope, you called from the plane. General McPherson had just explained to me that the government couldn’t let one man in private control of their access to space, as a matter of national security. He was letting me know I was expected to help them in the transition to nationalization.”
“Son of a bitch.” Aaron said.
“So right at that point you call, doing paper work, and talking to me on the side all distracted. I know exactly what you sound like when you are doing that. McPherson wanted to know what was happening. I informed him that as soon as he pulled me in you, by some strange coincidence, were on a private supersonic headed for Hong Kong within ten minutes. I told him that was the first time in eight years you’d walked out like that without telling me. His communication tech looks at him and says, “Voice analysis says a bit more than 97% probability of truthfulness.”
“There’s no way he could have known we set this up,” he objected. “That’s when the other two guys with us wearing stars started getting all twitchy.
“You can listen in I assume,” I told them, and went back to your call. “You never noticed.”
“Well sure. You were always covering the mic and yelling at somebody. I never twitched at a little dead air time. I guess that would sound strange to somebody who doesn’t know us.”
“So I asked when you would be back, and as usual you were noncommittal, so I took a chance,” I said, “Aaron tell me straight. Are you coming back?”
“You always say weird stuff like – Are you going to stay in Fuji with the native girls? Some of us have work to do Aaron. Don’t you think it’s time to just buy Peru instead of the copper? I distinctly remember one time I had you on speaker phone, and you told the whole executive board of Mitsubishi you didn’t think I loved you anymore. They all think to this day that we’re secret Joy Boys. That’s how I know your calls are over. You never say hello or goodbye like normal people, you get flippant.”
“Do you remember how you signed off?
“Nah, it’s been too long. I always try to be as big a smart ass as you, but it’s hard. You’re pretty damn quick.”
“Give me a reason,” you said. “It had just been a particularly nasty week here, with snow and ice. That could explain why you said, “I might find the climate more pleasing in China,” you said that and hung up.”
“Yep, couldn’t have said anything better if we’d had a play book, and worked it out ahead of time. They thought for sure you were defecting.” The jackass looked at his creep with the military grade lie machine. Kid just shakes his head he isn’t reading any deceit at all.”
“The General says, “You expect me to believe this private citizen penetrates our security better than we hack his, and is willing to fly away from all this wealth he has created these last eight years, and will start over again in China?”
“So I told him a little bit of the truth.”
“I don’t expect you to believe anything. I doubt your capacity. But one of my main jobs is spreading his money all over the planet as fast as it comes in, so some self-important fascist, who couldn’t start to create what he has created, can’t just walk in and steal it without even a gun in his hand. That ‘private citizen’ just sold licenses this quarter greater than the GNP of France, I told him.”
“What can we do? One of the other Generals had the sense to ask.
“I have no idea,” I told him. “I have no idea who he uses, or how he gets intelligence. I’m his business man, and he keeps Security, and every other critical function compartmented as hell. Are you familiar with when his University sued him, and tried to take his patents?” I asked them. “His lawyers came into court with twenty-six spiral bound notebooks. They were provably his holographic documents by the handwriting, and their age was testable. They were simply too extensive to have been generated as a fraud in the available time. They detailed any period of ten minutes in his life for the last six years, to prove he made his invention on his own time. They documented every drive, every meal, every phone call, and movie he saw. He even documented when he took a crap. What kind of a man foresees he’s going to need something like that? Every point you could check like stopping to buy fuel for his car, or if he bought a coffee with his paycard, was accurate. I’m not stupid and I do know for damn sure I’m not going to cross him.”
“Thank you, Tim.”
“Don’t thank me. I related to them the little speech you gave me about ripping my living heart out, and letting me die staring at the bloody thing if I tried to screw you.” The asshole actually had the nerve to look at his techie and confirm I wasn’t making it up.”
“All I could suggest to them was that they dismantle whatever idiotic scheme they had devised, and if you thought they could be trusted to mean it, you’d find out and you’d come back. I wasn’t about advise you what to do when you obviously had better sources of advice than me. I was going to go back to work, and hope the whole sorry mess blew over. And I did.”
“Wow, the whole thing was a gigantic bluff,” Aaron said smiling. But his eyes weren’t laughing anymore than they had been for the heart speech.
“Was it? You always have kept everyone separated doing their own job. I barely know we have a Security department. Except they are there instantly if you need them. I thought maybe it was bluff, but Hiroshi saw me last year, and started reminiscing about when you flew out to talk to him. Funny how people remember and replay a visit with an important person, when mundane things are forgotten. A fellow might be in the army, and sixty years later what he remembers is the day the President visited his outfit, and shook hands with him. Hiroshi said how impressed he was with your decisiveness. He remembered how you dashed to the plane in order to get there for a breakfast meeting, and then called him, when in the air, to make the appointment, not the other way around. ‘How can you turn down a person with that force of will?’ he asked.”
“Well it’s been two years, those things get kind of hazy,” Aaron allowed, and looked at Tim with honest affection. “You know, I told you I wanted you for my business guy. It wasn’t really your concern who took care of other matters, or how. I’d say everyone did a splendid job. It’s time for me to hand over the rest of my stock in the Beanstalk like I promised. You’ve had your fill of running back down here for little problems these last couple months. I expect I’ll come up for a weekend, and see how you are doing. You can show me the sights, take me to Apollo Park.”
“I’d love that, but don’t dawdle. Things are so much cheaper now, and building up so fast, I expect to be able to buy commercial passage to Mars pretty soon. I think I’d like to see it before it is all crowded.”
Aaron nodded agreement, but had that distracted look he always got when he was really thinking. “I expect you already know, it would be much easier to build an elevator on Mars than Earth. I mean, as long as you are going there anyway,” he pointed out.