Lieutenant Robinson threw the memo onto his desk. “Results,” he muttered. “They want some damn results.”
The memo was short and to the point. He had to show some results by the end of the fiscal quarter, or the project would be shut down. And his career along with it. He had joined the Marines looking for adventure and glory, maybe even a Medal of Honor, like his Grandfather. Instead, he had ended up behind a desk on Tei Tenga, managing a project that was doomed to failure.
He dialed Jonas’s office code on the comm link. “Clark,” Jonas answered.
“Jonas, Robinson. Anything new on the machine?”
“Actually, yes. It looks like we may be getting a response. I am going over the action logs right now.”
Robinson felt a flicker of hope. “We need to show some results Jonas, for both of our careers, if you know what I mean.”
The line was silent for a moment. “I understand. I’ll let you when I have some concrete information,” Jonas said.
“Robinson out.” He cut the connection and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his sharp nose. Maybe he could salvage his career after all. If not, he was not going down alone.
Jonas sat looking at the comm unit on his desk for a moment. “Bastard,” he said. Jonas realized that Robinson was going make him the scapegoat if this project did not show results. A failure here could damage his career. He sighed and turned back to the logs. All he could do was plod ahead.
Jonas was hoping that the rise in the magnetic flux of the alien machine indicated that they had done something and triggered a response. If so, it had to be in the action logs. The action logs contained a detailed record of all the actions and observations that the team conducted on the machine. The strategy was simple: try something and see what happens. Since they had no reference points, no guidelines to go by, this hit and miss method was their only way to explore the machine.
The last entry in the logs was by Jack Shand, the technician assigned to section 11B. 11B was a square panel of dark metal covered in raised buttons. The buttons had no markings and were little more than thumb-sized bumps that gave slightly when pressed. Since the buttons did not have any markings on them, it was possible that an operator had to press the buttons in the proper sequence in order to activate the panel.
However, they did not know what that sequence might be, so they were using a brute force method; just start pressing buttons until something happens. Jack may have pressed the right buttons in the last action cycle, and the machine had responded.
The buttons had been mapped to a grid, 5 rows high and 10 columns wide. Button 1-1 was at the top left position and button 5-10 was at the bottom right position. Jack had pressed buttons 3-4, 3-5, 3-6 and 2-6. The pattern was a short line with an upward pointing tail.
Jonas looked at the pattern and scratched his chin. An idea was tickling at his brain, not quite forming into a whole thought. He called up the pictures of the alien machine on his desk comp and paged through them slowly.
“Wait,” he told himself. On his screen was a picture of a small, silver plaque of alien script. Jonas remembered that this plaque was affixed to side of a round pedestal in the center of the machine. The pedestal stood a meter above the floor and was 6 meters in diameter. The pedestal was made of some dark, extremely dense metal, its surface inlaid with a grid of shiny, crystal squares.
He examined the script on the plaque and the thought in the back of his mind crystallized. A symbol on the plaque looked similar to the pattern on the grid. The symbol on the plague however, had a small tail that pointed to the right at the top of the upward stroke. Jonas looked at the grid and marked buttons 2-7 and 2-8. The pattern on the grid matched the symbol.
“Eureka,” Jonas whispered.
Samuel Johnson, the gray-haired Chief Engineer for the base, was scanning the yellow cooling pipe of the reactor power plant for micro-fractures. The reactor was in the lower level of the base, buried in a maze of rock corridors, pipes and control rooms. The base on Tei Tenga did not have one of the newer, and safer, fusion reactors. Instead, it relied upon century old, fission reaction technology.
A fusion reactor required deuterium, which was extracted from ocean water. The deuterium was combined with tritium to create plasma that was compressed to the point of fusing. On earth, fusion reactors had replaced fission reactors for a variety of reasons. They were safer, they could not melt down, they did not generate any radioactive waste and they produced copious amounts of energy. They were also complicated, expensive to maintain and required a constant supply of fuel.
Tei Tenga did not have any oceans and the cost of transporting enough deuterium for a fusion reactor was prohibitive. Samuel also did not have the crew required to run and maintain a fusion reactor. A fission reactor, however, only required a one-time transport and set-up cost. Once the reactor was in place, it would last 10 years and it could be maintained with a small team. Although not as safe or as efficient as a fusion reactor, the fission reactor was still used in just these situations.
The reactor heated pressurized water to well above the boiling point, where it was piped into a series of generators that produced electricity. The water was then shunted to the surface where the bare pipes dumped the heat into space, and then it was piped down this corridor and back into the reactor. The tiny amount of water that was lost in the system was replaced by water drawn from the glacier, deep under the base.
As Samuel slowly walked down the access corridor toward the reactor, the detector he held over the pipe would beep when it detected a micro-fracture. Samuel would spray a spot of red paint on the pipe at that location. When he had walked the length of the access corridor, there were six red spots on the pipe.
“Showing your age, aren’t you?” Samuel said, patting the insulated pipe. Micro-fractures were serious. They could grow into full-fledged leaks in the cooling system if they were not sealed. A leak in the cooling system of a reactor was a bad thing. It could lead to a core meltdown.
The reactor could not explode like a bomb, but it could get very, very hot. Hot enough to melt clear through to the center of the moon. First, though, it would burn its way into the glacier of ice buried under the base. Tons of water would flash melt, exploding up the hole and into the base. Live steam, heated almost to the point of plasma, would cut through the walls of the base like a laser cannon.
Samuel tiredly rubbed his eyes. With this number of fractures, he needed to assign three men to the job. However, he did not have the manpower to spare. The base budget had been cut, and then cut again, and his work force had dwindled to a skeleton crew.
“Two workers maybe,” he thought to himself. He scanned the list of outstanding work-orders on his hand comp. The list was long, too long and as he paged through the list, new work orders appeared. How were they going to catch up?
He decided, given the length of the work-order list, to assign only one worker, Harry Tripp, to the job. Harry had experience with sealing micro-fractures and he was reliable, if a bit slow. Samuel knew he was gambling, but he had no choice. He simply did not have the people.
“You better behave yourself,” he told the reactor as he headed down the corridor to his office. Behind him, where a strut anchored the pipe to the wall, a tiny bead of water formed.