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´╗┐Title: Quarantine
Author: Smith, George O. (George Oliver)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.


*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Quarantine" ***


                              QUARANTINE

                     A Novelet by GEORGE O. SMITH

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                Thrilling Wonder Stories December 1947.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                               CHAPTER I

                              _Tempalloy_


Tony Morrow looked around the bench for a piece of brass and found a
proper-sized chunk handy. That saved him a trip to the stockroom. He
chucked it up in a vise, picked up a file, and set the teeth of the
file against the chunk of brass to shape it. He pushed.

The file slid across the bit of brass as though there were no teeth.
The end of the file went past without resistance and the vise jaws took
a chunk of skin off Tony's knuckles.

He made appropriate and unprintable comment, inspected the file
curiously and tried again--but with restraint. This time he skinned
another knuckle but not so badly. He tried another file and even more
restraint.

The result was the same. The file skidded across the bit of brass
without touching it.

It was like--Tony Morrow remembered his first day in the machine shop
as a kid--like trying to file a wrist pin.

He picked up a center-punch and a hammer. He set the punch against the
brass and belted the top a good whack with the hammer. The top fudged
over a bit--that was intentionally soft. The point blunted--that was
intentionally hard. The brass did not even show a bright spot beneath
the point of contact. He tried a hacksaw with a new blade. No result.
Swearing, Tony Morrow took the bit of brass and placed it between the
jaws of a power shears. He pressed the button and the shears came
down--hard.

The knife shattered--a huge chip sprang out of the cutting edge where
it struck the bit of brass. The heavy motor ground to a shuddering halt
and the frame of the shears gave slightly.

"Mur-der!" he breathed.

Andy Cleve was watching this from the other side of his lathe.

"What have you got there, Tony?" he asked.

Tony shook his head. "Brass," he said doubtfully.

Andy grunted. If that bit had been brass any of Tony's machinations
would have been successful. Nothing could touch the bit of metal, ergo
it could not be brass.

Andy looked on, permissibly forgetting his lathe. The tool had run out
beyond the work, coming inexorably toward the four-jawed chuck. Finally
it touched. The jaw came around as the tool moved to the left and the
area of contact was less than five one thousandths of an inch.

Normally, this would have produced a cut on the jaw of the chuck and a
hoot of derision from any machinist who saw another scar a lathe chuck.

But the scant contact stopped the lathe. There was a foul screech from
the series of belts that turned the lathe, the back gears complained,
the motor grunted once and stalled. The lights went dim until a fuse
blew, taking the power off of the stalled motor.

Andy looked at the hung-up chuck and saw the scant interference that
had stopped the lathe.

"I've got it too," he said in an awed voice. "Something has made this
chuck harder than a pawnbroker's heart!"

Andy Cleve and Tony Morrow headed for the front office on a dead run....

       *       *       *       *       *

James Greene held a match for the girl's cigarette and then applied the
flame to his briar. He leaned back with a puzzled smile and started to
tell the girl what he knew.

"We think we may have it licked," he said. "We'll know later."

Leona Holden smiled graciously. "I hope so," she told him. "Though
I know all too little of this sort of thing. Dad talks as though
everybody knows all the answers--leaving out far too much of the
uninteresting detail that tells the history of the thing. Mind going
over the minutiae?"

"Not at all," said Jim. "You know what Tempalloy is?"

"A hard alloy, isn't it?"

"Tempalloy is more than that. Tempalloy is, so far anyway, the
ultimate in hard alloys. It is practical only because of its hardness
characteristic. Tempalloy when first processed is about as soft as mild
steel. With time, it grows very hard--a thousand times harder than
tungsten carbide. That's due to the radioactivity."

"Radioactivity?" asked Leona Holden. "I'm more puzzled now than before."

"Tempalloy is an alloy composed mainly of chromium and cobalt. The
remainder consists of two of the transuranic radioisotopes that
are manufactured in the uranium pile. Alloying the stuff cold--a
physicist's word for non-radioactive--results in an alloy metal that
one can touch with any tool.

"We mix it with a metal--not the right one, but one which is
radioactive. Then the radioactivity causes the transmutation of the
element into the one we want. In other words, the original alloy is
soft, but the emission of the radioactive particle causes the alloying
element to change so that it is a hard alloy. Follow?"

"Vaguely," answered the girl with a slight smile.

"Well, Tempalloy starts off soft and hardens swiftly in a matter of
about eight hours. The trouble is, Miss Holden, that Tempalloy as a
prefabricated material--for a gear, it is made in a blank and machined
into the final product--is fine, but it must be worked before it grows
hard.

"Now it is almost impossible to come out even, and there is either
a wastage because the machinists run out of material before their
workday is over and then can loaf the rest of the day or the Tempalloy
stockpile is too great and when the workmen are finished, there is
still a quantity left that will harden and become waste. Understand?"

"But surely that cannot be great," objected the girl.

"Not for any one day," agreed Jim. "But take it for six months. Then it
becomes a problem. Also, what to do with the scrap. Nice paperweights,
anchors, or something to crack nuts on. Anyway," he said with a grin,
"it is important enough for your father to award Greene Metallurgical
Laboratory a contract to develop an alloy that will cut Tempalloy."

"And you think you have it?"

"We have a very strange alloy, but I'm not too sure of it," said
Greene. "And you can tell your father that. You see, we discovered an
alloy that was the reverse of Tempalloy. It starts off very hard--hard
enough to cut Tempalloy--but softens with time. Takes about eight
hours. Now that might be fine, but there is atomic interaction between
tool and work as it is used to cut Tempalloy. We gave it a name, Miss
Holden, and call it Fool's Alloy. We found that when it is used,
everything goes to pieces."

"Just how?"

"Well, Tempalloy approaches a stable hardness when left alone, just as
Fool's Alloy approaches a stable softness. These curves are exponential
curves. But when Fool's Alloy is used to cut Tempalloy, the Fool's
Alloy goes dead soft in about a half hour and the Tempalloy starts to
harden linearly, even though it has been in a stable state of hardness
for months."

"But how can that be?"

"We're not too certain. But remember, every time you cut anything, even
butter with a knife, you leave some of the tool on the work and some
of the work on the tool. And it takes only a few ten thousandths of a
percent of Element Ninety-Seven to make Tempalloy what it is. Ergo, a
minute quantity of the important part of Fool's Alloy is all that is
needed to make the Tempalloy get much harder."

Leona Holden nodded brightly. "But look," she said, "wouldn't using the
superhard Tempalloy serve as a tool-edge for cutting normal Tempalloy?"

"Yes, for a time," admitted Greene. "But the trouble is, Miss Holden,
that the hardness-creep passes from the superhard Tempalloy tool to the
normal Tempalloy work and eventually the work is too hard to cut again.
There is--"

       *       *       *       *       *

The door opened violently and Tony Morrow and Andrew Cleve came in on
the dead run and skidded to a stop as they saw the girl.

"What's up?" asked Greene.

Tony dropped the piece of brass on Jim's desk.

"This is supposed to be brass," he said. "And it is harder than
the hinges of Hades. You can't cut it with a file. I wrecked the
shear-blade, and when I tried it on the stone, it made an excellent
grinding-wheel dresser."

"Brass?"

"Unless someone has regained the secret of hard copper," said Tony
Morrow uncertainly.

Leona Holden looked interested. "They claim there was such a secret,"
she observed.

Jim Greene laughed. "Nope," he said. "It wasn't that, but just a part
of the search for a harder edge that has gone on for twenty thousand
years."

"Twenty thousand years?"

Greene nodded. "It started when Cain slew Abel and discovered that
a hunk of flint was harder than a human skull. The next man wore a
leather helmet. That was fine until someone discovered bronze which cut
leather. Alexander carved himself an empire with bronze swords.

"Then someone got some carbon mixed with iron and the Age of Chivalry
was heralded in on the clangor of mild steel. The bronze sword turned
its edge against the steel armor. The old timers immediately claimed
that their fathers had bronze swords that would cut anything--that
these modern bronze swords weren't as hard as in the good old days.
They forgot to mention that in the good old days, the ability to cut
anything could not possibly have included the new alloy, steel. Well,
people have been hunting for newer and harder alloys ever since."

"I see," she admitted uncertainly. "But this piece of brass?"

"I hope you'll pardon me," said Jim. "But we've got work to do. There's
something afoot that is far from good. Tell your dad I'll let him know
in a few days whether we can stabilize the superhard Tempalloy."

"I'll be back in a few days," she said. "I'm interested enough to want
to watch this!"



                              CHAPTER II

                              _Contagion_


According to law, any building that housed a self-reacting nuclear
pile employing uranium or any other fissionable material, must be not
less than ten miles from the nearest dwelling. Green Metallurgical
Laboratory was, therefore, ten miles by the best surveyor that the
State of Indiana could supply, away from the outward corner of the last
house in Ramball, Indiana. Greene Metals was connected to civilization
by means of a road made of metal-alloy paving locks, a third-rail
interurban trolley-line that took workers to and from, a railroad spur,
and a series of tall towers that carried high tension lines.

The lines were used to carry power to three outlying cities--the power
generated by the uranium pile was a by-product. It was used to generate
the radioisotopes and transuranic elements used to make special alloys
for special jobs--at a very special price.

It was along the metal-surfaced road that Leona Holden drove her
sixteen cylinder Holden Special back to Ramball. Her story was none too
clear; yet she conveyed to Gregory Holden the one fact that somehow,
strangely, Greene Metals had discovered a means of making any metal
superhard. Whereupon Gregory Holden called in his legal staff.

Deane Mawres heard the tale again, produced the Holden contract with
Greene Metals and ran through it with a practised eye. He had written
the contract himself and he knew where to find what he was after. He
nodded with self-satisfaction.

"Go on," beamed Holden. "How does it tie in?"

"It states in effect that any developments made under this contract
shall belong completely to the Holden Enterprises," he said. "Now it is
a fact that Greene was attempting to find an alloy capable of cutting
Tempalloy. Therefore if, due to by-product of this search, any other
discoveries of a valuable nature are made, they shall also become the
property of Holden Enterprises."

Gregory Holden selected a large cigar and lit it with a flourish.

"If what my daughter says is true," he observed, "I can see automobiles
with superhard bodies. We'll give Greene a week, and then we'll close
in."

Leona looked puzzled. "Will that be necessary?" she asked. "Mr. Greene
seems to be an honest man."

Her father looked tolerantly at her. "My dear," he said, "when
something like this is in the wind, no man is too honest. Greene will
be inspecting this contract with a microscope to see if there are any
flaws that will permit him to keep his discovery."

"Well, I don't believe that of Jim Greene."

"I do. And we'll prove it to you."

Leona left the office. She did not think it of Jim Greene, but there
was no sense in arguing with her father on the subject. As she left,
Deane Mawres looked up.

"Can you squeeze 'em?" he asked.

"I think so," replied Holden. "Tempalloy is a Holden product, you know.
And you should know."

Mawres nodded complacently. Then he said:

"Greene has Tony Morrow working for him, you know."

"Morrow is a has-been," replied Holden roughly. "All he can do is to
stand in the way and make nasty remarks."

"I'm inclined to worry about Morrow. When he was head of the Morrow
Alloy Company, he was no man's fool, as you very well know."

"He was our man's fool, though perhaps no other man's," laughed Holden.
"He developed Tempalloy. And it was you that convinced the judge and
jury that his act of shipping us the hard metal was a cover-up."

"That wasn't too hard," smiled Mawres. "All I did was to show them that
the cost seemed too high, after which I used Morrow's own figures to
show that Tempalloy was as easy to shape as mild steel. They assumed
themselves that Morrow was shaping the stuff soft and charging us for
the job of shaping the hard stuff. The kicker in the contract was the
thing that gave us Morrow Alloys and that's what put Tony Morrow out of
a job."

"Well, find a kicker in the Greene Contract."

"No kicker is needed. When and if it's needed, we've got Greene where
we want him. I wonder if there's any truth in the thing at all. It
seems outrageous that a hardness-factor could creep from metal to metal
like that."

"Well, we'll find out," said Holden, re-lighting his cigar. "And maybe
we'll own Jim Greene by his soul, too."

"Fact is," continued Holden after a moment of thought, "I'd prefer that
he does try to weasel out of it. Then we can really move in."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jim Greene nodded at the electronics specialist. "Sure, I've got a
moment. What is it?"

"Superhard Tempalloy is a superconductor."

"Superconductor? Are you sure? I've never heard of one existing at
normal temperatures."

Edwin Wright produced figures and a multi-curve graph. "These curves
show the hardness-creep of the superhard stuff," he said, pointing to
one of two, "versus normal Tempalloy. You'll notice that the superhard
curve is incomplete but extrapolated. The specific resistivity of both
are shown too--and that's how I extrapolated the hardness curve.

"There is a definite mathematical relationship between the hardness of
Tempalloy and its ohmic resistance. Therefore when the superhard stuff
starts to get beyond the range of our high-test Rockwell machines,
I took the liberty of making the mathematical extrapolation. It
approaches a perfect conductor. It is also nonmagnetic, which hasn't
changed. Its heat conductivity is something terrific, too; like liquid
helium.

"I can see the development of high-wattage microwave generators out
of it; you can make the tube elements very small and the radiating
fins large and out of the circuit so long as you connect them with
Tempalloy. Then any heat generated in the elements themselves will also
be communicated instantly to the fins.

"I've tried it with a long filament of the stuff. You take a Tempalloy
rod about six feet long and twenty thousandths in diameter and hit one
end with an oxy-hydrogen flame. It gets white hot all along the wire at
the same time--and you can cool the whole thing by sticking the far end
in water. When you dangle one end in water and heat the other end with
a torch, it's just like pointing the torch itself into the water."

"Uh--that's some metal, then. Well, Wright, you go to work on it and
see what we can do."

Ed Wright nodded. "I'm working with Otto."

Greene nodded. Otto was the theorist; the mathematician, the abstract
thinker. Confronted by facts, Otto Lindstrom had an untrammelled mind
with unlimited imagination. He had, however, no use for fiction. His
world discounted any fiction until it became fact.

Otto Lindstrom and Ed Wright made a good pair, for Ed was inclined to
take any situation or set of facts and extend them a bit beyond fact
so that he could build a fantasy about them. While Jim Greene was
considering this, the telephone rang and he reached idly for it.

"Mr. Greene? This is Joe, down in the cafeteria. I thought, you'd like
to know that we're having trouble opening the cans."

"Hold it," said Jim, wondering. "I'll be right down."

He went at once. Joe handed Greene a can and indicated the can-opener
on the wall. Jim Greene slid the can under the knife and tried to clamp
the handle down. It would not go; but stuck just as contact was made.
That told Greene volumes. He called Tony Morrow and Andrew Cleve and
three other workmen and set them to checking the metal building with
center punches and hammers. Within an hour he knew all he needed to
know.

It had started with the lathe upon which the test cutting of the first
Tempalloy by the first Fool's Alloy had been done. Now it was spreading
through the building.

As he returned to his office, one of the girls called his attention to
the fact that her stapling machine no longer worked. The staples came
out, and they punctured the paper, but they did not fold over on the
underside. Tony Morrow, tapping on the floor, lost his balance and fell
against a stenographer's desk. The typewriter toppled, and the girl
wasted no time in fading back out of the way. The typewriter hit the
metal floor with a crash--and bounced, unharmed.

"Now," muttered Greene, "if we could control this, we'd have that
glorious postwar world!"

An hour later, Jim Greene had every member of the plant assembled. He
told them what was going on. Then he concluded:

"This must be stopped. You all can see the result, if it is not.
Contamination by a piece of treated metal will spread indefinitely,
so far as we know. It takes but a minute contact. Now, we cannot be
responsible for the death of this civilization and that is what it
amounts to. Those of you who prefer to stay may do so. Those of you who
prefer to leave may do so, providing you leave with absolutely no metal
on you.

"All production work is suspended; all facilities will be put on the
job of figuring out how to confine and control this contagion of
metals. When we have it licked, we'll see to it that all of you are
repaid for your discomfort. Okay?"

There was an uncertain roar that greeted this but the result was
gratifying.



                              CHAPTER III

                             _Countermove_


It was midnight when the special train came down the siding. It was
laden with canned goods in jars and other foodstuffs packaged without
metal. The men set to work with a will to remove a certain quantity,
but the bulk of the stuff in the mechanical refrigerator cars seemed
to be ignored. The engineer and train crew broached the subject to Jim
Greene.

"I am impounding the train," he said.

"You can't!"

"I am. It is necessary." He explained the hardening of metals and then
said: "Can you understand the decline of civilization that would take
place if no metal could be worked? We had to order supplies because
we couldn't open a tin can. We've unsealed your cars only because we
couldn't break the metal seal once it got superhard. We've had to open
all candies and other stuff wrapped with tinfoil because superhard
tinfoil cannot even be bent! Every watch in the place has stopped
because the hairspring has such a violent strength that there is not
enough energy to flex it."

The engineer thought for a moment.

"How about the tracks?" he asked.

"It's creeping along them, too. We're cutting them. Right now."

The engineer looked at the brakeman.

"We're stuck," he said. "Let's help!"

At the edge of the plant yard, just inside the metal fence, a workman
was plying an acetylene torch. Another man was sitting astride the
rail, tapping it with a center-punch.

"Better hurry, Tim," he said, moving along a few inches. He tapped
again, nodded, and kept trying the rail. Three minutes later he
muttered something and moved again. The hardness was creeping along
the rails swiftly. In fact, behind him, Otto Lindstrom was making
calculations as he moved. Lindstrom turned to Jim Greene as the latter
arrived and said:

"The hardness is creeping swifter now. It is accelerating rapidly.
Unless the man with the torch hurries, he will not be quick enough!"

The man testing the rails moved again. "Better give up, Tim," he said.

Tim grunted and watched the rail for a moment before shaking his head.
He applied the torch again and the sparks flew.

"I can beat it, Larry," he said confidently.

Then as he spoke, the sparks died from the rail and Larry leaped from
his seat with a cry of pain. The hardening-creep had reached the cut
before Tim was finished and the heat had swept along the rails burning
Larry.

"Look," said Greene, "calculate how far it travels before you can cut
in and then go out and do it without test. Darn it, Larry, you've got a
contaminated punch there that's helping the spread along!"

A roar of sound and a belch of flame came from five hundred feet away.
Greene's men had just cut the metal-surfaced roadway with dynamite.

       *       *       *       *       *

Gregory Holden snorted angrily and flung the telephone back at its rest.

"No communications," he said. "That means that Greene has something."

"Trouble, perhaps," said Leona. "Something must have happened."

"You're darn well right it happened!" scowled Holden. "What happened
was that Greene did turn up with a means of hardening metal. Now he's
hiding behind a wall of secrecy until he can figure out an angle."

"I don't believe it."

"Maybe not," grunted Holden, "but you can bet it's true. He--yes,
Alice?"

"A Mr. Morrow to see you," his secretary told him.

"Morrow! Well, by all means send him in! Tony Morrow, Leona. Greene
must think I'm guileless. Or he must be stupid. He should know that
sending Tony Morrow with any cock-and-bull story wouldn't convince me
of anything--Hello, Morrow. What's going on out at your place?"

"It's bad," said Tony. "And quite dangerous."

Holden tossed a quick what-did-I-tell-you glance at Leona and then
selected a cigar from his humidor.

"Tell me," said Holden leisurely, "did Jim Greene really discover a
way to harden all metals?"

"In a sense, yes."

"And what does he intend to do with it?"

"Try to keep it safe until we can figure out how to handle it."

Morrow didn't know, of course, that he was almost echoing Holden's
previous words. Morrow disliked Holden immensely, and would have given
years of his life for a chance to get back at the tycoon.

Regardless of the opinions of jurors and judges who were misled by
brilliant oratory glibly describing the machinations of a technically
complex process, it was a fact that Holden's grab of the Morrow Alloy
Company was more than sixty percent cold-blooded steal.

"Tell me, Morrow, why did you come here?"

"Because Jim wanted you to understand. You see, Jim Greene is quite
a responsible person, Holden. Far more honest than either you or
myself. He knew you would expect his answer when he said he'd have one,
therefore I am here to explain."

"I see. And Jim Greene hopes to keep this affair a secret?"

"Hardly a secret. That I fear is impossible. But at least we can keep
the terrible truth out of the public hands until it is safe."

"Terrible truth, huh?" asked Holden.

Morrow grinned. "You can have your hard metal, Holden, so soon as it is
not dangerous to society."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning the so-called nuclear safety clause that is included in each
and every contract dealing with any product or by-product of the
uranium pile. If it is not baldly stated in the contract, it is still
in force by Act of Congress as of nineteen forty-eight."

"Just what is this danger?" asked Holden.

"We cut the telephone lines, the high-wires, and the railroad to
prevent the spread of metal-hardness," said Tony. "Likewise we blasted
the metal-surfaced road. We're impounding all incoming metal whether it
be automobile, railroad, or belt buckle."

"And you have not a stitch of metal on you?"

Morrow laughed. "An excellent tribute to my dental equipment," he said.
"But I state proudly that there is not the trace of a filling in any of
my teeth. I happen to be the only living soul at Greene Metals that can
step outside of the fence without contaminating the rest of the world."

"Yeah," drawled Holden, "how about the earth?"

"This is Indiana. We're situated on a bed of Indiana limestone,
surrounded by a sea of alluvial sand and morraine, and there isn't a
pocket of natural raw material within a good many miles of us."

"You actually claim that this hardening follows all metal?"

"We had trouble cutting the railroad tracks," said Morrow. "We had to
abandon our cut three times before we got it cut through. Each time the
hardening raced along the tracks and caught up with the torchbearer."

"Rather hard to believe," said Holden.

Morrow smiled slightly. Inwardly he was bubbling. Often he had heard it
said that there is nothing so subject to doubt as the absolute truth.
He had a fair idea that Holden was suspicious of any statements from
Greene--especially any coming through himself as spokesman.

Putting himself in Holden's position, Morrow could see Holden's
supposition that Greene had made a monumental discovery. And that
Greene was trying to employ the nuclear safety clause to suppress the
discovery until he could develop some means of handling it himself.

If Holden were really convinced of this, he would act. If he managed
somehow to acquire a sample, the fat would really be in the fire.
Morrow had a good witness to testify that he had warned Holden, and
the chances were that Holden had this conversation recorded anyway. So
Morrow was sticking to the truth.

"What does Greene hope to do with all this?" asked Holden.

"If it can be worked out, everything will be all right," replied
Tony, picking his phrases carefully. "If not--Greene will call in the
government."

"Government?"

"The resources of the United States Government are large enough to find
the answer to this new feature. Excepting that Jim is afraid of it,
we'd already be calling it the Greene Effect."

To Holden, visualizing the ramifications of a superhard metal, the
word 'Government' meant armed forces. The Navy would leap gleefully to
accept armor plate that could not be touched with anything up to and
including oxy-hydrogen. The army would take it as quickly. And if it
meant anything at all, the skies would be filled with superhard dural,
magnesium, and aluminum metals.

That was not too good. If Greene offered it to the Navy, they would
accept it as a sideline issue from the original contract and Holden
would lose. Holden might appeal to the courts, but if he did so, he
would be condemned as one who would obstruct the security of the
nation. Also, if Greene did give it to the armed forces, Holden might
consider the process a military secret. If that happened, he would not
be permitted to speak himself.

"Okay," he said quietly. "You tell Greene that so soon as he figures
out which angle to follow, we'll get together and work something out."

"I'll tell him that," Morrow said thoughtfully. Tony Morrow left,
wondering just what course Holden would take. Also how long it would be.



                              CHAPTER IV

                              _Atom Bomb_


The car that drove up to the breach in Jim's metal road paused only
long enough for the driver to throw in the front-drive gears. Then it
proceeded across the rough spot. It drove up to the front door and
uniformed men got out, looked around, and then entered boldly, ignoring
the weak protests of the guards at the portal.

The leader identified himself to Jim Greene.

"I am Major General Langley."

"Yes, General Langley? I'm sorry you came; at least so far in."

Langley waved away the concern and came to the point of his visit.

"I'm given to understand that you have a process for making a superhard
metal here."

"We have--but it is not that simple."

"Why?"

"Because the process is in violation of the nuclear safety clause. It
is not safe to permit its use in civilized places."

The general nodded easily. "We of the armed forces operate under the
'calculated risk,' in times of possible danger. Fact of the matter
is, a bomber crew with a full load flying over friendly territory is
operating under 'calculated risk' because anybody who handles dangerous
explosives does."

"This is not a matter of personal risk," objected Greene.

"No?"

"It may mean the death of civilization itself."

"Come come, Mr. Greene. That's what they said about the atom bomb.
That's what someone probably said about the bow and arrow."

"May I ask who put you on this trail?"

General Langley nodded. "Gregory Holden," he said. "As he explained it
to me, you are holding secret one of his processes."

"In a sense we are," admitted Greene. "But Holden should be aware
of the possibilities of this. I sent Tony Morrow in to tell him
everything."

"I was told that there would be talk of danger," said the general
quietly.

"Well--there is danger!" snapped Greene.

"Perhaps I should insist that the armed forces laboratories
investigate. I'll ask you for a sample of your hard metal."

Greene stood up and banged the desk with a hard fist.

"No metal is leaving this plant. Not even your car!"

"Come now, Greene. You cannot impound Army equipment."

"No? It will not leave!"

"May I point out that my men are armed?"

"I'll ask you to have one armed man sent up here," said Greene quietly.
"But tell me, meanwhile, just what did Holden tell you?"

The general looked at Jim Greene in puzzlement. He went to the window
and called one of the armed soldiers before answering Jim's question.

"Holden says this hardening process is rightfully his by virtue of a
legal contract. According to Holden, the value of this process is such
that you would go to any lengths to void the contract. Even to the
point of offering it to the armed forces. However, Holden offered it to
us first."

"Holden, then, is using the United States Army to pull what he thinks
is a chestnut out of the fire," said Greene bitterly. "The fool!"

General Langley grunted. "Holden knows that the Army will deal properly
with those who help it. You are hindering, Greene. Had you made the
offer, we would have dealt with you."

Greene was shaking his head when the soldier came in. "General, I'm
going to demonstrate to you my superhard alloy. And then its danger.
May I ask your permission to direct the soldier?"

"Corporal Hadley, this is James Greene. He has my permission."

"Yes, sir."

"Hadley," said Greene, "fix your bayonet and lunge through that window
screen over there."

The corporal looked at Greene as though the man were crazy. Shaking his
head, Hadley fixed his bayonet and made a dilatory poke at the screen.
The screen stopped the bayonet and did not even bend. Hadley rammed
it hard but the heavy rifle stopped cold. Putting his entire weight
and muscle into it, Hadley stabbed at the screen, and nearly lost his
footing due to the complete and solid stoppage.

"You'll notice that the screen is not even deformed," said Greene.
"Now, quickly, soldier, fire a shot at the screen."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hadley raised his rifle and fired. The bullet hit the screen and would
have ricochetted save for the screen itself. The cupro-nickel jacket of
the bullet parted under the fine-wire mesh, and strained or extruded
itself through by almost a sixteenth of an inch. It hung there--hot.

"When that cools down," said Greene, "You'll find a crisscross thread
on the bullet. Now, Hadley, I think it is time to fire once more."

The soldier pulled the trigger. There was a sharp click but no report.
The soldier re-cocked his rifle and tried again. Then he levered the
shell from the chamber and tried another. That, too, misfired. Greene
picked up the outcast shell and handed it to General Langley.

"Note the primer," he said to the general. "The spread of this metal
contagion is so swift that by now the corporal's rifle has become
hardened from its contact against the screen. Obviously, the metal
primer cannot be dented to fire the shell."

"We could put a plastic primer in," said Langley.

"And kill your own soldiers?"

"How?" snapped the general angrily. "I doubt that you have the
experience in firearms--"

Greene held up a hand. "When a shell is fired, it expands slightly.
The holding ferrule widens to permit the bullet to leave, the bullet
is deformed as it hits the rifling-lands of the barrel. With superhard
metal, General Langley, the shell would not expand, the holding ferrule
would not permit the exit of the bullet, and if it did, the bullet
would stop when it hit the rifling-lands. The net result in any case
is the fact that the exploding gases can only escape back through the
primer-hole, fighting their way through the gas-closures and finally
ending up by hitting the soldier in the face." Greene smiled. "Of
course," he said with the tolerant air of a man speaking to a child,
"you could design a rifle so that the escaping gases would blow out
easily."

The corporal blinked. "Why," he said, "this makes all rifles obsolete."
He thought a moment. "In fact, all firearms. We're back to the knife."

Greene turned to the general. "And if you want your army to be equipped
with this superhard metal, do it quickly, General Langley. Because
once all metal on earth gets hard, you won't be able to machine any of
it...."

Leona Holden bumped across the breach in the road and ran to Jim
Greene's office, but found him missing. The girl in the front of the
office enclosure idly pointed out at the back door that led from the
office room to the laboratory, and Leona went there. She found Jim
Greene working over an analytical balance measuring powders of metals.

"Leona!" he said. "You shouldn't have come here."

"I had to find out," she said simply.

"Find out?"

"The truth of this. Dad says you are trying to steal his process. Tell
me honestly Jim, what is it?"

"What Tony Morrow told you is the truth," he said.

"But what are you doing?"

Jim laughed bitterly. "The obvious," he said. "Whatever nuclear
reaction caused this all-embracing total hardening of all metals, it
was started by the contact of two radioactive alloys. We know why each
of the alloys behaved as they did alone, but not why they should have
touched off this contagious metal disease. Therefore I am trying to
develop another alloy that will reverse the process."

"Then it is bad," breathed the girl. "I'm glad."

"Glad?" exploded Greene.

"Not glad for the trouble of course," she said quietly and sincerely,
"but definitely glad that my father is wrong. But Jim, just how bad is
it?"

       *       *       *       *       *

General Langley came from the window and faced the girl.

"Miss Holden," he said, "it is bad enough to convince me that I must
stay here--because of the silver fillings in my teeth! Until Greene
gets his answer we are stuck."

"And what are your chances?" asked Leona.

"I don't know. This looks like a hopeless case. We don't know what to
look for in the first place and the permutations possible in making
alloys out of a hundred-odd elements are approaching infinity. I--Hey,
that's a plane!"

General Langley turned to the corporal who was sitting near the
portable radio removed from the general's command car.

"Contact them," he said.

"Yes, sir." The pilot called and was answered.

"This is General Langley. What are you doing here?"

"Major Howes to General Langley. Your report via radio as of this
morning has been considered by the Master Board of Strategy. It has
been declared a first class national emergency. We have orders for you
to evacuate the premises."

"Don't be ridiculous. We can't."

"You must. I have orders to destroy the plant."

"Destroy it?" snapped the general. "You must not--and that is an
official order from me."

"You outrank me, sir," came the reply. "However, I am under formal
order from the President of the United States and responsible only to
him. You are also. You are to evacuate the premises."

"We cannot."

"Why?"

"Because we carry with us the contaminated metal. There is no man or
woman present who has a silver filling in his teeth that does not stand
an excellent possibility of being contaminated."

"Then if you leave you may cause the spread of this contagion?"

"Precisely."

"Then hold on a moment. I must contact my superiors."

Minutes passed. Then Major Howes returned to the radio contact. His
voice was very strained.

"Since you are all contaminated," he said, "I have orders to destroy
you all. This is a matter of sacrificing you for the benefit of
humanity."

"Can't you give us time to work this out?" demanded the general.

"The National Board of Strategy fears that the contamination may spread
if it is not taken care of instantly." The major's voice broke again as
he said, "I am sorry, sir. But I have orders--"

Greene whirled from the window. "What's he doing? He just dropped
something."

"A-bomb," grunted the general, "to destroy us and save civi--"

"No!" screamed Greene.

The general faced Greene sarcastically.

"You're not afraid to die, are you?" he asked bitterly.

"No," said Greene, "But I am against dying for no good. Look, general,
if the Eastman Kodak people had trouble with straw-paper made from a
field in Illinois that was contaminated by the explosion at Los Alamos,
what chance do you think there is that this will be really destroyed?"

The general blinked. And at that moment, the bomb landed on the ground
below.

"Time fused!" yelled the general.

"We have one chance!" cried Greene. He unsnapped the catches on the
window screen with one hand and grabbed a handfull of small superhard
Tempalloy samples with the other. Then he leaped out through the
window, raced to the pit where the bomb lay ticking, and liberally
sprinkled the monstrous bomb with the contaminating metal. Then he ran
back, to meet the others who were coming through the door.

"Get away!" he screamed at them.

"If it works," said the general, "we'll not need distance. If it
doesn't, we can't run that far anyway."

"But--"

There was a sharp cracking report as the internal gun fired
non-critical masses of plutonium together and fused them into a
supercritical mass, followed by a hard roar as fission took place and
the expanding energy filled the cavities in the bomb. Trapped, the mad
energy roared in confinement and dissipated as heat.

The bomb, hidden by its own pit, flared incandescent instantly, blasted
a solid fan-wise beam of light into the sky that paled the sun, and
then sank out of sight as it melted the very ground beneath it. Sand,
dirt and rock flowed into the bubbling pit and were hurled into the sky
in a mad geyser. The ground grew hot beneath their feet and the molten
pit spread wider, its edges eroding into the bubbling mass. The spot
in the center above the bomb gurgled and hurled spouts of molten earth
into the air.

[Illustration: The bomb flared incandescent and blasted a solid beam of
light into the sky.]

Jim Greene shook his head and mopped his brow.

"I am--beat," he said weakly.

General Langley was still staring at the molten pit.

"Licked," he gritted, and those who heard him knew he meant the atomic
bomb. He turned to Greene and said: "Jim, this is an order. Lick this
hardening disease somehow, but keep it handy." Then he turned to the
still increasing puddle of molten earth and muttered: "'Tis truly an
ill wind that blows no good!"



                               CHAPTER V

                              _Cost-plus_


Gregory Holden stopped his big car at the metal gate. Puzzled, he
leaned out of the car and snapped:

"I'm Gregory Holden, soldier. I want in."

"Mister," said the soldier snapping the bolt on his rifle, "I don't
care if you are Geronimo himself. No one goes in without General
Langley's permission."

"What's going on here, anyway?"

The soldier smiled. "No man who goes in can come out. That's why
we're restricting the clientele to the cream of society. We want no
overcrowding."

"Don't be insolent. Tell Langley I want in!"

"Don't be hasty. General Langley is in command and he is a busy man."

"I'll enter anyway. I'm Gregory Holden."

"You enter without permission and that name will look well on your
tombstone," gritted the soldier. "Now be a good corpse-intended and
I'll see if you have the proper qualifications for entry."

Fuming in rage, Holden respected the rifle of the sentry and of the
other guards that ringed the premises. He waited for a full half hour
before the guard returned and opened the gate.

"Walk," he said.

"That's a full half mile," objected Holden.

"It'll take some of that pot off of you," suggested the soldier. "No
metal goes in that can't be stopped. Remove all coins, belt buckles,
fountain pens, keys and everything else of metal and you may enter. As
soon as you're clean, we'll know it by the induction balance here."

Fuming, Gregory Holden removed metal bits. He was amazed to find out
just how many bits of hard metal he carried. As he started down the
road, the officer smiled at him.

"Lucky you're wearing trousers with buttons instead of a zipper," he
called. "One guy went in wearing seven-striped shorts."

Holden grunted angrily. When he reached the laboratory, he snapped:
"What's going on here?"

Langley turned. "We are keeping this secret from society," he said in a
scathing voice. "We hope to keep it for ourselves."

"But--?"

"Stick around and watch. Mr. Greene is making an experiment."

Holden dropped into a chair. No one paid any attention to him, and he
finally called Leona over and asked her what was going on. Quickly, and
while watching the operations at the laboratory table, Leona brought
him up to date, including the atom-bombing.

Holden blinked. "I daresay we started something," he said in an awed
voice. "I never suspected that every metal would get hard!"

Idly he picked up a cube of metal and hefted it. "What's this?" he
asked.

"One of Jim's samples," Leona told him. "But you shouldn't have moved
it. It is supposed to stay in contact with that superhard Tempalloy
plate there."

"Sorry," said Holden. He dropped the cube of metal on the Tempalloy
plate again and then reached over to square it up. As he turned it, one
corner scratched the plate below. The sound caused all of them to turn.

"What was that?" demanded Greene.

Holden showed him. Then Greene picked up the tempalloy plate and
scratched it deliberately. He tried the plate against another tempalloy
plate and scratched it easily. He tried his sample alloy against the
other plate and scratched that.

"Lacking any means of measuring hardness at this level," he explained,
"we can arrive at this assumption. This is Alloy Seventeen in this
series of tests. Seventeen, in contact with tempalloy, hardens.
Tempalloy softens. Seventeen will scratch hard tempalloy, which will
scratch the tempalloy softened by Seventeen."

He tried the bench beneath the samples. It scratched. Even with the end
of a pick, it scratched. Then like a geologist marking a contour map,
Jim Greene started to plot the spread of softening. Like a widening
pool, it spread; out across the bench it went, spread to the legs,
started across the floor.

"Out of here!" he yelled suddenly.

"But why?" asked Leona.

"Because the ground around the yard is filled with tiny metal scrap,"
he said. "And I'm still worried about that A-bomb!"

From the edge of the ten-mile sterile area, they watched the terrible
mushroom cap billow towards the sky. The thundering roar buffeted at
them and the ground shook beneath their feet. Upward went the cloud to
be blown away by winds of the upper air.

"You see," said Jim Greene, "the confinement of the explosive was such
that only enough plutonium exploded to provide restraining pressure for
the rest. Then when the casing returned to its sensible hardness, that
restraining pressure permitted the rest of the explosion." He turned to
Holden and handed him the notebook.

"Here, Gregory," he said, "is the means to make superhard alloys--and
the means to control them. I want no part of it."

Holden smiled. "The cost-plus rider in the contract can be constructed
to include the plant as an expenditure," he said.

Greene shook his head. "I never want to see another alloy as long as I
live."

He was wrong. It took eight months to prove it, because it was eight
months before they could rebuild the Greene Metallurgical Laboratory on
the plains ten miles from Ramball, Indiana.



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