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Denizens: 4 - Metal

...They melted it, froze it, beat it, stretched it, rolled it and literally did everything to it that it was possible to do. They bombarded it with lasers, gamma rays and ultra-violet. During the course of their tests, they discovered, among other things, that it had an extremely high melting point, unprecedented for such a soft metal, of over ten thousand degrees Celsius. This made it perfect for the heat shields of spacecraft such as re-entry vehicles.

But the oddest property they found was that it only existed in two states, metal and liquid. After melting, which turned it into a liquid resembling mercury, further heating had no visible effect. Try as they might, the scientists could not make it turn gaseous, even at temperatures approaching one hundred thousand degrees...

The properties of the metal found on an asteroid defies the best investigative efforts of Earth scientists.

Brian William Neal is that rarest of sci-fi writers - he tells exciting must-read-on tales, and makes them believable in every detail. For earlier chapters of his thrilling new novel click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

The ore from the asteroid, when refined, yielded a metal which, while similar to several known metals, was not quite the same as any of them. Needless to say, it caused considerable controversy amongst the scientists whose job it was to test it in order to discover its properties.

After refining, what was left was a silvery-gray substance, softer than aluminum, which was provisionally designated BB4731 after the two discoverers and the asteroid in which it was found. Then the metallurgists proceeded to subject it to every test known to their science.

They melted it, froze it, beat it, stretched it, rolled it and literally did everything to it that it was possible to do. They bombarded it with lasers, gamma rays and ultra-violet. During the course of their tests, they discovered, among other things, that it had an extremely high melting point, unprecedented for such a soft metal, of over ten thousand degrees Celsius. This made it perfect for the heat shields of spacecraft such as re-entry vehicles.

But the oddest property they found was that it only existed in two states, metal and liquid. After melting, which turned it into a liquid resembling mercury, further heating had no visible effect. Try as they might, the scientists could not make it turn gaseous, even at temperatures approaching one hundred thousand degrees.

This oddity intrigued a particular technician, one Howard S. Dutton, who worked at a small government lab in Washington. One day, while studying the effects of extremes of temperature on the alien metal, he suddenly had a brainstorm. What if, he wondered, what if…?

He harangued his boss, and finally was given permission to take a sample of the metal to NASA – Ames Research at Moffat Field, Mountainview, California. Following an instinct he did not completely understand, Howard fashioned the sample into a crude hollow sphere, one foot in diameter and less than a quarter of an inch thick. From the extreme softness of the metal, he was reasonably sure that his experiment would meet with failure, but he nevertheless had a feeling. Something about the way the metal refused to turn gaseous rang an intuitive bell in him.

*

Two days later, Howard sat outside the decompression chamber at the naval base, nervous as an expectant father, watching the sphere through a thick lead/glass portal as the pressure began to mount. When it reached ten atmospheres, he sat a little straighter. Won’t be long now, he thought, keeping one eye on the indicator on the chamber’s outside wall.

But the needle continued to climb; twenty, fifty, one hundred, two, three hundred atmospheres, yet the sphere showed no sign of crumpling or indeed any reaction at all. A few of the navy technicians wandered over to the tank and watched with Howard; still the pressure increased, and soon there was a sizable crowd cheering the little sphere on. Finally, when the needle reached 800 atmospheres, the naval rating in charge of the chamber spoke up.

“I’m afraid that’s it, sir.”

So intent was Howard on watching the sphere, he didn’t at first realize what the rating was saying.

“What?” he said, distractedly. “What do you mean?”

The sailor shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s as high as we go, sir. The chamber can’t take any more.”

Howard stared through the glass at the sphere, sitting completely untroubled by pressure that would crush a man to jelly.

“What’s that chamber made of, sailor?” he asked.

The rating, aware of Howard’s security clearance, replied immediately. “It’s the new one, sir. Plas-Titanium alloy.”

Howard looked back through the glass again and said, half to himself, “And this little bugger just sits there and laughs at 800 atmospheres.” He turned to the men standing behind him. “Have any of you ever seen anything like this before?”

There was a general negative murmur.

“Well, in that case,” continued Howard, “you had all better report to your commanding officers for debriefing.”
He looked again at the sphere. “We seem to have something here.”

As the naval personnel filed out, Howard stayed behind, still looking at the sphere, a small smile slowly creeping over his doughy features. Then he began to chuckle silently to himself. Well I will be dipped in shit and rolled in bread crumbs, he thought. You cunning little bastard.

*

“Stronger? What do you mean, stronger?”

Howard Dutton was in the Washington office of the director of the government department for which he worked, attempting to explain just what had occurred at the naval base. Ever since the incredible experience of the pressure chamber, Howard felt as though he had explained to half the population what had happened. The navy had sent a senior officer, an admiral, to the chamber, and he had asked some very penetrating questions, to which Howard had had few answers. Then two polite young men in dark suits and mirrored sunglasses had shown up and asked a few more, equally without issue.

Before he quite knew what was happening, Howard had been hustled on to a navy jet and whisked across the country and back to the capital at mach 5, cradling the sphere on his lap in the cockpit. When he arrived, the sphere was confiscated and he was questioned, then questioned again, then confined to his office. When he had a chance to reflect on what had happened, it occurred to him that the only people he hadn’t seen were any from the media, and he found that strange. Sure, he reasoned, the navy would have screwed a very tight lid on this, but plenty of people saw what happened. Surely someone would have leaked something.

Now, talking to his director, it seemed they had not. Wearily, he looked across the desk and made another effort to answer his boss’s question.

“Just what I said, sir,” he replied, his voice hoarse from lack of sleep. “The more pressure we piled on that little thing, the stronger it became. If we hadn’t stopped, I believe we would have ruptured the chamber.”

The director stroked his graying beard. “And just how do you account for that, Dutton?” he asked.

Howard shook his head. “I can’t, sir,” he replied tiredly. “I’ve never seen anything like it. All I know for sure is that a hollow sphere less than one quarter of an inch thick, constructed from the as yet unnamed alien metal designated BB4731, resisted atmospheric pressure equivalent to that found at an ocean depth of 25,000 feet. I might add, the sphere wasn’t even very well made. I just kind of threw it together for the experiment. It’s as though the metal strengthened its own joins.”

The director stared at the technician. “You do realize that what you’re describing is patently impossible, that it just cannot happen?”

“Yes, sir. At least, that’s the case as far as any material I’m familiar with.” Then he added, as an afterthought, “Anything from earth, that is.”

The director spoke musingly, staring at a spot just above Howard’s head. “So this really is something new, something truly...alien.”

“It certainly seems so,” replied Howard. Then he asked, “Any idea what we’re going to do with it, sir?”

The director looked down at his desktop, then back at the technician. “We are not going to do anything with it, Dutton. The whole matter, both the metal and the project itself, has been taken out of our hands.”

Howard gaped at his superior. “But sir, that’s not fair!” he burst out. “I, er, we made the discovery in the first place. Why are we being shut out of its development?” He clenched his fists in frustration, and the director softened slightly.

“Because that’s the way these things happen, Howard. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing you or I or any of us can do about it.”

“But sir-“

“Let it go, Dutton.” The director said, his manner brusque and formal again. “Remember, we’re supposed to be professionals. Besides, it’s now a matter of national security.”

Howard stared at his superior, then got up and left the room without another word.

*

The best brains in America met at a secret location in the Colorado Rockies and studied the new metal, officially named Herculeum for its strength. They subjected it to more tests, this time concentrating on its reaction or, rather, non-reaction to pressure in an attempt to break it, to find some flaw in its structure. Such an immaculate substance went against the collective scientific grain, and they strove to find something they could at least point to and say, ‘There, you see? It’s not perfect after all.’ But the amazing material resisted all their efforts.

It could, as Howard Dutton had discovered, be melted, though not easily. It could be beaten, shaped into virtually anything they wanted. But under pressure, there was nothing like it on earth.

So they built a new compression chamber, made entirely out of Herculeum, stronger than anything the world had ever seen, and subjected samples of the metal to enormous forces, thousands of atmospheres. But still the alien material could not be broken.

They constructed spheres of very poor design, even some with deliberately faulty joins; it made no difference. Under pressure, those joins mended themselves and became, to the astonishment and consternation of visiting scientists who had heard of the phenomenon but had not wanted to believe, as strong as the rest of the sphere.

Finally, even the most hard-nosed skeptics among them had to admit that they had found something for which they had no explanation, a perfect mystery for which there appeared to be no answer. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do scientists loathe an unsolvable puzzle. Even under an electron microscope, the molecular structure of the metal gave no clues as to the reasons for its amazing properties, although one or two of the scientists did remark that its atomic makeup, at times, looked almost organic.

In the end, however, and typically, the government was more interested in the whats than the whys. The reasons for the metal’s remarkable properties were problems for the scientists to solve at their leisure, and those few who advocated holding off on its use until they understood it better were overruled. The researchers could continue their tests, and the government would make sure they had enough of the metal for their purposes. After all, it wasn’t as if it was in short supply. The original asteroid had yielded more than thirty-five million tons of ore, and more Herculeum was being refined every day. Meanwhile, specially designated mining ships were scouring the asteroid belt for any other rocks showing the same characteristics as the original.

*

Within the government, not all eyes were turned towards space as the area where the metal could be best utilized. Mining was still going on at home on earth, and the one big area largely unexplored was the ocean bed, particularly in the deepest, hitherto inaccessible places.

The lion’s share of the new metal still went to the Space Federation, but a large amount could still be made available to the navy’s research department. This was centered at the Dobb’s Point Oceanographic Institute in Santa Monica, California. The Institute recruited scientists and technicians from all over the world to assist in the task of testing the metal to its limits. If, indeed, it had any that were measurable by earthly science.

Meanwhile, another experiment was being prepared, the outcome of which would inextricably link its participants with the alien metal, thereby causing the destinies of the two projects to become slowly but surely intertwined.

***

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