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Read book online ยซThe Bramble Bush by Randall Garrett (best summer books .TXT) ๐Ÿ“•ยป.   Author   -   Randall Garrett

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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE BRAMBLE BUSH *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at The Bramble Bush

Usually, if a man's gotten into bad trouble
by getting into something,
he's a fool to go back. But there are times ...

by Randall Garrett

Illustrated by Schelling

There was a man in our town,
And he was wond'rous wise;
He jumped into a bramble bush,
And scratch'd out both his eyes!

โ€”Old Nursery Rhyme

Peter de Hooch was dreaming that the moon had blown up when he awakened. The room was dark except for the glowing night-light near the door, and he sat up trying to separate the dream from reality. He focused his eyes on the glow-plate. What had wakened him? Something had, he was sure, but there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary now.

The explosion in his dream had seemed extraordinarily realistic. He could still remember vividly the vibration and the cr-r-r-ump! of the noise. But there was no sign of what might have caused the dream sequence.

Maybe something fell, he thought. He swung his legs off his bed and padded barefoot over to the light switch. He was so used to walking under the light lunar gravity that he was no longer conscious of it. He pressed the switch, and the room was suddenly flooded with light. He looked around.

Everything was in place, apparently. There was nothing on the floor that shouldn't be there. The books were all in their places in the bookshelf. The stuff on his desk seemed undisturbed.

The only thing that wasn't as it should be was the picture on the wall. It was a reproduction of a painting by Pieter de Hooch, which he had always liked, aside from the fact that he had been named after the seventeenth-century Dutch artist. The picture was slightly askew on the wall.

He was sleepily trying to figure out the significance of that when the phone sounded. He walked over and picked it up. "Yeah?"

"Guz? Guz? Get over here quick!" Sam Willows' voice came excitedly from the instrument.

"Whatsamatter, Puss?" he asked blearily.

"Number Two just blew! We need help, Guz! Fast!"

"I'm on my way!" de Hooch said.

"Take C corridor," Willows warned. "A and B caved in, and the bulkheads have dropped. Make it snappy!"

"I'm gone already," de Hooch said, dropping the phone back into place.

He grabbed his vacuum suit from its hanger and got into it as though his own room had already sprung an air leak.

Number Two has blown! he thought. That would be the one that Ferguson and Metty were working on. What had they been cooking? He couldn't remember right off the bat. Something touchy, he thought; something pretty hot.

But that wouldn't cause an atomic reactor to blow. It obviously hadn't been a nuclear blow-up of any proportions, or he wouldn't be here now, zipping up the front of his vac suit. Still, it had been powerful enough to shake the lunar crust a little or he wouldn't have been wakened by the blast.

These new reactors could get out a lot more power, and they could do a lot more than the old ones could, but they weren't as safe as the old heavy-metal reactors, by a long shot. None had blown up yetโ€”quiteโ€”but there was still the chance. That's why they were built on Luna instead of on Earth. Considering what they could do, de Hooch often felt that it would be safer if they were built out on some nice, safe asteroidโ€”preferably one in the Jovian Trojan sector.

He clamped his fishbowl on tight, opened the door, and sprinted toward Corridor C.

The trouble with the Ditmars-Horst reactor was that it lacked any automatic negative-feedback system. If a D-H decided to go wild, it went wild. Fortunately, that rarely happened. The safe limits for reactions were quite wideโ€”wider, usually, than the reaction limits themselves, so that there was always a margin of safety. And within the limits, a nicety of control existed that made nucleonics almost an esoteric branch of chemistry. Cookbook chemistry, practically.

Want deuterium? Recipe: To 1.00813 gms. purest Hydrogen-1 add, slowly and with care, 1.00896 gms. fine-grade neutrons. Cook until well done in a Ditmars-Horst reactor. Yield: 2.01471 gms. rare old deuterium plus some two million million million ergs of raw energy. Now you are cooking with gas!

All you had to do was keep the reaction going at a slow enough rate so that the energy could be bled off, and there was nothing to worry about. Usually. But control of the feebleizer fields still wasn't perfect, because the fields that enfeebled the reactions and made them easy to control weren't yet too well understood.

Peter de Hooch turned into Corridor C and kept on running. There was plenty of air still in this corridor, and there was apparently little likelihood of his needing his vac suit. But on the moon nobody responds to an emergency call without a vac suit.

He was troubled about Corridors A and B. The explosion must have been pretty violent to have sealed off two of the four corridors leading from the living quarters to the reaction labs. Two corridors went directly to one of the reactors, two went directly to the second. Two more connected the reactor labs themselves, putting the labs and the living quarters at the corners of an equilateral triangle. (Peter had never been able to figure out why A and B corridors led to Reactor Two, while C and D led to Reactor One. Logically, he thought, it should have been the other way around. Oh, well.)

Going down C meant that he'd have to get to Reactor Two the long way around.

What had the damage been? he asked himself. Had anyone been hurt? Or killed? He pushed the questions out of his mind. There was no point in speculating. He'd have the information soon enough.

He took the cutoff to the left, at a sixty-degree angle to Corridor C, which led him directly to Corridor E, by-passing Reactor One. He noticed as he went by that the operations lamp was out. Nobody was working with Reactor One.

As he pounded on down the empty corridor, he suddenly realized that he hadn't seen anyone else running with him. There were five other men in the reactor station, andโ€”so farโ€”he had seen no one. He knew where Willows was, but where were Ferguson, Metty, Laynard, and Quillan? He pushed those questions out of his mind, too, for the time being.

A head popped out of the door at the far end of the corridor.

"Guz! Hurry, Guz!"

De Hooch didn't bother to answer Willows. He was short of breath as it was. He knew, besides, that no answer was expected. He had known Willows for years, and knew how he thought. It was Willows who had first tagged de Hooch with that silly nickname, "Guzzle". Not because Peter was such a heavy drinkerโ€”although he could hold it like a gentlemanโ€”but because he had thought "Guzzle" de Hooch was so uproariously funny. "Nobody likes a guzzle as well as de Hooch," he'd say, with an idiot grin. As a result, everybody called Peter "Guz" now.

The head had vanished back into the control room of Reactor Two. De Hooch kept on running, his breath rasping loudly in the confines of the fishbowl helmet. Running four hundred yards isn't the easiest thing in the world, even if a man is in good physical condition. There was less weight to contend with, but the mass that had to be pushed along remained the same. The notion that running on Luna was an effortless breeze was one that only Earthhuggers clung to.

He ran into the control room and stopped, panting heavily. "What ... happened?"

Sam Willows' normally handsome face looked drawn. "Something went wrong. I don't know what. I was finishing up with Reactor One when I heard the explosion. They are both"โ€”he gestured toward the reactorโ€”"both in there."

"Still alive?"

"I think so. One of 'em, anyway. Take a look."

De Hooch went over to the periscope and put his eyes to the binoculars. He could see two figures in heavy, dull-gray radiation-proof suits. They were lying flat on the floor, and neither was moving. De Hooch said as much.

"The one on the left was moving his armโ€”just a little," Willows said. "I'll swear he was."

Something in the man's voice made de Hooch turn his head away from the periscope's eyepieces. Willows' face was gray, and a thin film of greasy perspiration reflected the light from the overhead plates. The man was on the verge of panic.

"Calm down, Puss," de Hooch said gently. "Where's Quillan and Laynard?"

"They're in their rooms," Willows said in a tight voice. "Trapped. The bulkheads have closed 'em off in A. No air in the corridor. We'll have to dig 'em out. I called 'em both on the phone. They're all right, but they're trapped."

"Did you call Base?"

"Yes. They haven't got a ship. They sent three moon-cats, though. They ought to be here by morning."

De Hooch looked up at the chronometer on the wall. Oh one twelve, Greenwich time. "Morning" meant any time between eight and noon; the position of the sun up on the surface had nothing to do with Lunar time. As a matter of fact, there was a full Earth shining at the moment, which meant that it wouldn't be dawn on the surface for a week yet.

"If the cats from Base get here by noon, we'll be O.K., won't we?" de Hooch asked.

"Look at the instruments," Willows said.

De Hooch ran a practiced eye over the console and swallowed. "What were they running?"

"Mercury 203," Willows said. "Half-life forty-six point five days. Beta and gamma emitter. Converts to Thallium 203, stable."

"What did they want with a kilogram of the stuff?"

"Special order. Shipment to Earth for some reason."

"Have you checked the end-point? She's building up fast."

"No. No. I haven't." He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue.

"Check it," said de Hooch. "Do any of the controls work?"

"I don't know. I didn't want to fiddle with them."

"You start giving them a rundown. I'm going to get into a suit and go pull those two out of thereโ€”if they're still alive." He opened the locker and took his radiation-proof suit out. He checked it over carefully and began shucking his vac suit.

A few minutes delay in getting to the men in the reactor's anteroom didn't matter much. If they hadn't been killed outright, and were still alive, they would probably live a good deal longer. The shells of the radiation suits didn't look damaged, and the instruments indicated very little radiation in the room. Whatever it was that had exploded had done most of its damage at the other end of the reactor. Evidently, a fissure had been opened to the surface, forty feet aboveโ€”a fissure big enough to let all the air out of A and B corridors, and activate the automatic bulkheads to seal off the airless section.

What troubled him was Willows. If he hadn't known the man so well, de Hooch would have verbally blasted him where he stood.

His reaction to trouble had been typical. De Hooch had already seen Willows in trouble three times, and each time, the reaction had been the same: near panic. Every time, his first thought had been to scream for help rather than to do anything himself. Almost anyone else would have made one call and then climbed into a radiation suit to get Ferguson and Metty out of the anteroom. There was certainly no apparent immediate danger. But all that Willows had done was yell for someone to come and do his thinking and acting for him. He had called Base; he had called de Hooch; he had called Quillan and Laynard. But he hadn't done anything else.

Now he had to be handled with kid gloves. If de Hooch didn't act calm, if he didn't go about things just right, Willows might very likely go over the line into total panic. As long as he had someone to depend on, he'd be all right, and de Hooch didn't want to lose the only help he had right now.

"Fermium 256," said Willows in a tight, flat voice.

"What?" de Hooch asked calmly.

"Fermium 256," Willows repeated. "That's what the stuff is going to start building towards. Spontaneous fission. Half-life of three hours." He took a deep breath. "The reactor won't be able to contain it. We haven't got that kind of bleed-off control."

"No," de Hooch agreed. "I suggest we stop it."

"The freezer control isn't functioning," Willows said. "I guess that's what they went in there to correct."

"I doubt it," de Hooch said carefully. "They wouldn't have needed suits for that. They must have had something else bothering them. I'd be willing to bet they went in to pull a sample and something went wrong."

"Why? What makes you think so?"

"If there'd been trouble, they'd have called for someone to stay here at the console. Both of them wouldn't have gone in if there was any trouble."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess you're right." He looked visibly relieved. "What do you suppose went wrong?"

"Look at your meters. Four of 'em aren't registering."

Willows looked. "I hadn't noticed. I thought they were just registering low. You're right, though. Yeah. You're right. The surface bleed-off. Hydrogen loss. Blew a valve, is all. Yeah." He grinned a little. "Must've been quite a volcano for a second or two."

De Hooch grinned back at him. "Yeah. Must've. Give me a hand with these clamps."

Willows began fastening the clamps on the heavy suit. "D'you think Ferguson and Metty are O.K., Guz?" he asked.

De Hooch noticed it was the first time he had used the names of the two men. Now that there was a chance that they were alive, at least in his own mind, he was willing to admit that they were men he knew. Willows didn't want

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