Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Metasol

The Zaonian Oldback was a parched area of sand and broken rock. Nuzon was looming fairly large in the night sky. Soon it would be visible just before dawn and that would be the closest approach. The would be when the enemy would strike. When they could use short range transports, like kegs, to land troops.

The Venture loomed over the sand and scrub, a huge cylindrical spacecraft attached to a saucer shaped lifter craft. It looked like a mushroom. This was a very unfortunate visual image in Jorge's mind. His accommodations had a window with a grand view of it. He rarely looked.

"You're pushing yourself too much sir. Your injuries ..." Calculo wraed.

Jorge Gutman's voice was calm and measured out carefully, like each word was an effort that was carefully considers. "I'm not taking a couple days off now that we finally have success, when ... invasion looms."

"Understood," the robot replied. Calculo watched the light fixture flicker a little and said, "Bobo Frycook reports The Capitol is secure for the moment. Dame Ranna is safe. Radio stations have intercepted some enemy chatter from Nuzon. It looks like they will wait till a closer approach to attack."

"What's Project's status?" Sir Bert asked from his seat in the corner. Unconsciously the older man had picked a spot where he could watch the bathroom door and exit.

"Nearly complete. Propellant manufacture and machining is proceeding slowly. The fission reactor is causing some problems." Sir Bert didn't hear this last comment. An aero was coming in for a landing flying official colors. Sir Bert recognized the personnel emerging and breathed a little easier. Jorge and Calculo remained silent each with their own thoughts until the older man spoke again.

"Well? How long?"

"We should have all we need in three days. The fission reactor keeps overheating. We don't have enough water to cool it any faster.

"Overheating? How bad?"

"Not bad ... if you want to change the research from propulsion to deep core drilling ... and genetic experiments," Jorge said. Sir Bert squirmed a little at this.

"Closest approach to Nuzon is in a week." the Tech Knight repeated. There was little reason to attempt an invasion sooner. Telescopes would spot lift offs from Nuzon easily enough so there could be no surprise. The closer the planets were the more men and materials they could ship.

"I understand that Sir Bert. This assault was unanticipated. We'll make every effort to be ready in three days."

"Hrmph. Why not two?"

"Sir Bert, you want it sooner, I ... need some damned help! I can't exactly get around easily right now."

"Fine, you'll get it."

"We need the Elevated Man too. You better lash him under a couple of aeros or something and get him out here. I don't want just anyone handling the propellant."

"Is it that dangerous?"

"Yes and no. Handled correctly it is about as dangerous as flour. Calculo, let him see," the robot  handed the older man a tiny metallic cube about the size of his fingernail that was suspiciously light. "But you can make flour explode ... if you know how. You can make this explode with the right detonator or a blow torch. If a spy gets in here ..."

"How explosive is it?"

"That tiny cube there is equivalent to a stick of explosive or a few hand grenades, enough to obliterate the three of us," Jorge said. Calculo edged a little away from the mad humans but it was unnoticed.

"How ... is it radioactive?

"Even better. We used the fusion reactor in that old merchant," Jorge pointed to the cap of the Venture's mushroom. "It no longer could fuse hydrogen. But we could power it using our fission reactor and compress the hydrogen while cooling it to make the hydrogen solidify into its metallic form. It's a very efficient energy storage system. That was as close as I could get to using all local technology. We need a fusion reactor to make the stuff but old ones from decommissioned or wrecked ships will do. The fission reactor was built locally with fissionables a belter unloaded on us."

Bert stared at the cube a moment. "This is ironic. At one time we wouldn't be urging you on Mr. Gutman, we'd make you disappear for creating this. This is a deadly explosive. You could blow a vault with it or a city block. Now we're using it to demonstrate low technology planets like us do not require lifter technology to attain orbit. Once we build our own compressors."

"Then this damned embargo will be over. People will be stampeding to invest in us and I can get offworld ... I don't like ... this ... "

Sir Bert was a hard man, no less so because events forced it on him. He had killed men for betrayal before or to maintain control. He was not a nice man and that was just his nature. But he was not a monster, at least in his own mind. The cold look in his eyes softened for a moment and he spoke more softly.

"My friend, I will not forget what you have done here. Zaonia will not forget. You will get the treatment you need and deserve and more. I thank you," Sir Bert swallowed and continued speaking deliberately,"I am aware of your sacrifice and ... I'm sorry I was abrupt. I am working on something to ease your situation. Hang. Please."

Jorge eyes were shut tight and his expression that of a sleeper or more properly a dreamer. He floated in sterile solution in a modified cold sleep berth with tubes festooning his arms and entering the wounds the bullets had made near his spine. He seemed to be flying almost, his long hair braided carefully out of the way. The wires leading to pads attached to his forehead swayed a little from some micro current in the solution. Sir Bert knew it was old tech. Salvaged and rebuilt from the horde of a scientist deemed mad.It kept the body processes slowed down but allowed you to access the patient's mind. It was a lateral move from a coma in some ways. The speaker beside the man in the tube spoke again, this time more sharply.

"If we can't win this ... if I'm left like this ... you know what I want you to do."

"If there was no hope ... I would have ended your suffering by now. If there is a way ... if the Devil himself is in my way he will move aside or beg for mercy," Sir Bert said. He wasn't a nice man at all. But sometimes he could be a good friend.

***

Sandoval turned from her station and said, "Entering Zaonia orbit in five, Captain." She really wanted to change her uniform. A number of mercenary ships had come far closer to their aging freighter than she'd wanted when they were clearing Nuzon space. The Captain called it intimidation tactics and ordered her to stay on course. It was an old trick. Make sure the merchants would clear out of a system. Show them war was coming.

It seldom worked. It was great for business. A subsidized merchant had the Polity government behind it. Free traders such as them selves were hungry enough to run cargos to either side once the shooting started and charge way more for shipping, let alone if they were selling stuff you needed. The Captain was also Zaonian by birth and said he didn't knuckle. Whatever that meant.

Now he slapped Sandoval on her shoulder and said, "You relieved. Smart job! Go and ..." He was interrupted by a beeping from her sensor monitor. The navigator turned to investigate and then swore softly as she ran some analysis software.

"What have we got, Stick?" he asked looming over her shoulder. The sliderule that earned her the nickname was sticking out of her breast pocket. They all could stand a shower, having manned the bridge the whole of the hop from Nuzon.

"We got a ship blowing up ... repeatedly in a low orbit and ... gaining altitude and speed. It's ... beats me sir."

"You're too used to maneuver drives. Out here some planets still have to do things the hard way ... I heard of this never saw it in use before. Shit ... "

"Sir ..."

"Zaonia just won. They found their way to space without using lifters or reactionless drives. And they did a sidestep around chemo and fission. Run extensive scans of the craft and get ready for a jump to Inerze."

"Aye sir," the navigator replied tiredly. She pulled her slide rule out to begin the gross calculations for the jump. At least once they were in transit she could get some sleep and a shower.

***

There are a couple of ways to get to orbit with almost all of your ship intact, rather than discarded along the way. Lifters and maneuver drives are popular. But they are reserved for fairly high technology planets (defined here as more advanced than modern Earth. Otherwise planets need to make use of chemical rockets or nuclear rockets (which are hard on real estate and eco systems). But there is a wonderful third way, an abandoned notion discarded when lifter technology appeared (around the time the big sign reading Tech Level switched from 7 to 8).

Solid metallic hydrogen. Compress hydrogen, cool it and you get liquid hydrogen. Do it still more and ... you still get liquid hydrogen. Do it even more and -nope, still liquid. Get it under ungodly pressure and it turns metallic. If you did everything right it will stay metallic and solid at Earthly temperatures and pressure. It weighs about .7 kg/liter. It floats. You can use it for a flotation device!

Now you can smack. It shoot it. Bite it. You can toss it in a campfire and nothing will happen. Bring it to 1000 Kelvin and brother stuff happens. Metallic hydrogen heated to 1000 Kelvin becomes plain old gaseous hydrogen and goes on to occupy a much greater volume very quickly. It explodes with fifty times the force of TNT, a whopping 216 megajoules per kilogram. Let's go to the Boom Table.

Two kilos of the stuff has the explosive force of one of the USS Iowa's 16" shells. One kilo has the force of 36 120 mm tank gun KE shells. A gram of the stuff has a quarter mega joule of wallop. Twenty grams gives you the bang of a kilo of C-4. Obviously the stuff has dozens of peaceful uses. Wait what?

Imagine a small piece of jewelry with the explosive force of a couple of hand grenades.

It's so brutal as a rocket fuel it outperforms nuclear thermal rockets and doesn't turn your bones to aluminum. It has an Isp of 1700 compared to 1400 for a Nerva. Unfortunately it also has a combustion temperature of 7000 Kelvin which is star hot. It'd make an awesome welding fuel if you could keep the torch from exploding (and those goggles wouldn't help the welder much if it did). If you diluted it, cut it with liquid hydrogen to bring the temperature down, you could get the combustion chamber down to 3700 Kelvin which is barely doable with current technology. the alternative is having a combustion chamber 30+ meters across which is not good for lift offs. this brings the Isp down to 1000.

Or you could build an Orion style drive (which is what the Zaonians did). Hang a pusher plate on the back of a ship. Shoot charges of metallic hydrogen (Metasol in Zaonian) out the back and use a torch or timed detonator to set them off. The boom is not the same as a nuke but it's still quite a kick. In that case the prototype was only a couple of meters long and only had to get to orbit; it was a proof of concept model. More on this follow.

I will note if you make your reaction chambers of inertron then you lick the heat problem (and much more).

On the downside some people are killjoys and believe that quantum tunneling will cause mH to spontaneously explode. It only takes one fuel pellet to go bad to turn a spacecraft into the Kessler Syndrome. Even being on the other side of the pusher plate won't save you. This could be used to explain the stuff's rarity. Outside of special containment (in a liquid hydrogen, cushioned by grey goose down pillows, gravitic negaflux) it could explode, making conventional explosives stay ... conventional and letting the people who make TDX stay in business.

Or for true irony, say that lifter technology causes it to explode. Then you can understand why high tech planets avoid using the stuff. But then it gives the low tech planets a chance to play dirty.