Not With A Bang

by John Walker
20th December 1989

The ravine baked in the sun of a cloudless June afternoon. The pickup and the three people it had brought provided the only evidence this was a world dominated by humans and not less dangerous creatures such as the rattlesnakes and scorpions that so outnumbered them in these parts. The truck sat next to a field of boulders, each almost the size of its cab. Kurt Matson was calibrating an array of instruments piled on a folding table beside the truck. The truckbed was littered with the shipping cases Matson had spent the last three hours unpacking as he arranged and connected the equipment according to the diagram on his clipboard.

Sam Friedman, who'd finished lowering the gadget into the borehole an hour ago, sat on the tailgate of the truck and adjusted his straw hat once again to keep the sun off his face. Wes French, sent by the lab director to provide at least symbolic representation of Policies and Procedure at this highly irregular yet urgent field trip, was recording the proceedings with a handheld video camera.

French scrambled down the hill where he'd been shooting some wide angle views of the borehole, the equipment, and the cable that connected them. When he got to the bottom, he mounted the camera on the tripod he'd brought so it could record the experiment while he, Matson, and Friedman watched the instruments. “I can't get over how much all this looks like those Manhattan Project home movies you see every now and then in documentaries.” he remarked, peering through the viewfinder.

“Yeah,” Friedman commented, “we should'a got you one of those old hand-crank movie cameras and some scratchy black and white film for the right effect.” Matson looked up from the chart recorder, “Of course the truck's a Toyota, the generator's a Honda, half the instruments are from Germany, and we aren't here to split atoms.”

“No, not to split atoms,” Friedman said, as he hopped down from the truck and walked up and down the instrument table, checking the readings and scanning the firing panel. “You ready?”

“Just about,” muttered Matson, whose finicky attention to detail never failed to irritate Friedman, yet helped insure the success of the many projects on which they collaborated. He continued to tick off items on the checklist they'd prepared in the wee hours that morning. “O.K., primary instrumentation recorder to high speed, all channels reading at background, backup recorder running, 20 minutes tape available. Firing power on. Wes, you got that camera going?”

French indicated readiness and walked over to the table, whether to observe more closely or to be in the picture, Friedman hadn't a clue.

Matson scanned the table one last time. “Ready? All right, safe and arm switch to arm position. Yellow arm light is on, firing circuit continuity indicator is green.” He stepped back from the panel and motioned Friedman toward the small black button at the bottom, “This was your idea, Dr. Friedman. Let 'er rip.”

“Shouldn't we count down or something?” French said, amused. Friedman placed his finger on the button, “Sure. Zero.” and pushed it. There was a muffled thud, an almost imperceptible shudder in the ground, and a little puff of dust from the top of the borehole. A few rocks landed near the hole, making little tick-tick sounds.

Matson stopped the tape reels and the three gathered around the strip chart recorder. Even before the paper was torn off and spread out on the table, they knew that French's camerawork would find a place in some future documentary about this day. Friedman could barely contain his excitement, “Neutron counters one, two, three, and four offscale high. Counters five and six right in the middle of our projected range. Backup counters confirm. Pulse length looks like about 10 microseconds.”

French was taping all of Friedman and Matson's examination of the charts and their reactions. He broke in, “No radiation back here, was there?” Matson glanced at the rightmost line on the strip chart, “No. We'll live.”

“But in a very different world, I suspect.” said Friedman as he started disconnecting the cables and packing the instruments for the four-hour ride back to the lab.

Later, bumping and jostling over the dirt road across the empty basin, heading back to the lab, Matson driving: French looked over at Friedman, who'd been admiring the dust plume they were raising in the still New Mexico afternoon. “You two are going to be famous, you know.” “Sure, Wes,” said Friedman, “just as soon as all this gets declassified. Remember who we work for? Would you like to bet on the year?” French turned to Matson, “But didn't you say driving out that all this should be obvious from the open literature?”

Matson responded, “It was obvious enough to Sam. When all the ruckus about ‘cold fusion’ hit the street, almost nobody noticed that the Soviets reported neutrons from fracturing a crystal of lithium deuteride back in 1986. Hammer fusion. It looks like either deuterons are getting accelerated along propagating cracks, or else little pockets of plasma are appearing that enable fusion. Think of it as the subatomic version of crunching a wintergreen Life Saver in a dark room. All this ‘cold fusion’ stuff involves packing a metal crystal with lots of deuterons, and that's known to cause all kinds of cracking and disruption in the lattice.”

“So when Fleischmann and Pons reported it was a volume effect,” Friedman expanded, “and they burned up a chunk of palladium, we wondered if they weren't seeing a runaway version of the same mechanical fusion process. And when others had trouble making it happen, that pointed right at something very dependent on the properties of the metal. Now the Soviets are seeing neutrons when they crush fragments of titanium with steel balls in a bath of heavy water. We wanted to see how this scaled with volume and density by explosively compressing a chunk of deuterium-saturated titanium. Fortunately the director agreed.”

“After you scared him to death with the prospect of basement nukes, which you gentlemen appear to have invented this fine spring afternoon.” French interjected.

“But not a nuclear explosive.” Friedman responded, “This process generates plenty of neutrons but little or no gamma or other electromagnetic energy.” French looked at Matson, then at Friedman, “So the Eighties brought us the personal computer, and in the Nineties we're going to have personal neutron bombs?” Matson shrugged, “Looks that way, doesn't it?”

“Is there any way to restrict access to the materials?” French asked.

“Not really. Titanium's an industrial metal available all over the world, and we didn't use any special purity or fabrication steps. Besides, other transition metals may work just as well, and maybe ceramics or something will work even better—we don't understand enough to guess at this point.”

“But heavy water? That's subject to all kinds of controls, isn't it?”

“In industrial quantities, sure.” Matson replied, “But our gadget doesn't need the tons of it you use in a reactor, just a couple cc's. You can make that, if you're patient enough, in your garage by fractional distillation.” “Yeah, start with acid from old car batteries,” Friedman added, “it's already way enriched in deuterium by differential evaporation.”

“Marvelous…where are you two planning to publish anyway, Popular Terrorism?”

Friedman thought for a few seconds. “It's not that great a terror weapon, really, other than the cachet ‘nuclear blackmail’ has in the media. You can kill a lot more people a whole lot easier with bugs and chemicals right now—and none of that stuff is controlled at all.”

They rode along in silence for a while, watching the play of light and shadow on the desert as the sun sank toward the hills behind them. Matson broke the reverie, “It'll stop tanks.”

“Tanks?” Friedman said. “You mean, like Sherman tanks?”

“Sherman, M-1 Abrams, Soviet T-72, you name it. Remember the neutron bomb Carter decided not to build? That was a little artillery-fired fusion bomb optimized for neutron production. You pop one above a tank column and suddenly you have a bunch of tanks full of dead people.”

French broke in, “But there was one little catch. You still had a couple of kilotons of fission and fusion explosion, and as they say in Germany, the towns are only a kiloton apart.”

Matson continued, “Yeah, but look at what we saw today, the same thing the ‘cold fusion’ people have been reporting—lots of neutrons and no gamma rays or blast.”

“How much would you have to scale this thing up to make a weapon?” French asked.

“Ours would have taken out a tank column. That's why we fired it three thousand feet down the borehole. And we threw this thing together in two days from spare parts.”

French contemplated this for a minute or so. “Yes, but you had access to explosive lenses, synchronized detonators—all the resources of a weapons lab.”

“Handy, but unnecessary. Given the reaction rates we saw, I'll bet gunpowder and a piston would work just fine.”

“So let me get this straight,” French said, “when we get back to the lab, I'm going to walk into the director's office and report to him that we have crowned our achievements of the last forty-five years by inventing a nuclear pipe bomb?”

“One that stops tank assaults.” Friedman remarked. “You know, the original work on fracture-induced fusion was done in the Soviet Union, and one of the authors was an East German. They're the ones with all the tanks. They've gotta be thinking what we're thinking.”

“Yeah,” Matson said, as the shadows lengthened and the truck began to climb out of the valley toward the lab, “I'll bet the Berlin Wall is down before Christmas.”

Damned if it wasn't.


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