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Nerves [Secure eReader]
eBook by Lester del Rey

eBook Category: Classic Literature
eBook Description: At the great atomic plant in Kimberly, a congressional committee makes a surprise inspection raising the level of the men's tension even higher than it has been. By midday there have already been minor accidents but in the giant nuclear converters which are at the heart of the project work goes on at desperate speed. Until converter Number four fails disastrously. Jorgenson, the supervisor of the technical team and his crew had been running through a new and unstable isotope when the walls of the reactor gave way. The process of fusion is suddenly out of control ... and half a continent may be destroyed in a "peace-time" disaster which will not only sacrifice millions of lives but will destroy the possibility of controlled nuclear power forever. Jorgenson, the crew chief has survived the accident and is the only man who knows how to stop the runaway reactor. But Jorgenson is trapped inside that reactor, unable to communicate. He must be found and saved quickly in a desperate race ... or risk the globe itself.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 1956
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2002

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Chapter 1

The jangling of the telephone gnawed at Doc Ferrel's sleep. His efforts to cut it off by burying his head deeper in the pillow only made him more aware of it. Across the room, he heard Emma stirring uneasily. He could just make out her body under the sheets by the dim light of the early morning.

Nobody had any business calling at that hour!

Resentment cut through the last mists of sleep. He groped to his feet and fumbled for his robe. When a man nears sixty, with gray hair and enlarged waistline to show for it, he should be entitled to his sleep. But the phone went on insistently. Then, as he reached the head of the stairs, he began to fear that it would stop. Reaching it just too late would be the final aggravation.

He half-stumbled down the stairs until he could reach the receiver. "Ferrel speaking."

Relief and fatigue were mixed in the voice at the other end. "This is Palmer, Doc. Did I wake you up?"

"I was just sitting down to supper," Ferrel told him bitterly. Palmer was the manager of the atomics plant where Doc worked, and at least nominally his boss. "What's the matter? Your grandson got a stomach-ache, or has the plant finally blown up? And what's it to me at this hour? Anyhow, I thought you said I could forget about the plant today."

Palmer sighed faintly, as if he'd expected Doc's reaction and had been bracing himself for it. "I know. That's what I called about. Of course, if you've made plans you can't break, I can't ask you to change them, God knows, you've earned a day off. But ..."

He left it hanging. Ferrel knew it was bait. If he showed any interest now, he was hooked. He waited, and finally Palmer sighed again.

"Okay, Doc. I guess I had no business bothering you. It's just that I don't trust Dr. Blake's tact. But maybe I can convince him that smart cracks don't go over well with a junket of visiting congressmen. Go back to sleep. Sorry I woke you up."

"Wait a minute," Ferrel said quickly. He shook his head, wishing he'd had at least a swallow of coffee to clear his brain. "I thought the investigating committee was due next week?"

Palmer, like a good angler, gave him a second's grace before he set the hook.

"They were, but I got word the plans are changed. They'll be here, complete with experts and reporters, some time this forenoon. And with that bill up before Congress ... Well, have a good day, Doc."

Ferrel swore to himself. All he had to do now was to hang up, of course. Handling the committee was Palmer's responsibility; it was his plant that would be moved to some wasteland if the cursed bill was passed. Doc's job was concerned only with the health and safety of the men. "I'll have to talk it over with Emma," he growled at last. "Where'll you be in ten minutes? Home?"

"I'm at the plant."

Doc looked at the clock. Just after six. If Palmer thought things were that serious ... Yet it was the last day of Dick's brief visit home from medical school, and they'd been planning on this day all week! Emma had her heart set on making it a happy family affair.

A sound from the head of the stairs made him look up. Emma was standing there in a cotton robe and worn old slippers. Without make-up and with her hair hanging loose, she looked like a little girl who had grown old overnight without quite understanding it. Her face was carefully stripped of expression; she'd learned to conceal her feelings back in the days when Ferrel had maintained a general practice. But the tautness of her throat muscles and the way she cinched the belt around her too-thin figure showed that she had heard and how she felt.

She shrugged and nodded, trying to smile at him as she started down the stairs, favoring her bad hip.

"Breakfast will take a little time," she said quietly. "Try to get some sleep. I'll wake Dick and explain it to him."

She was heading for the kitchen as he turned back to the phone. "All right, Palmer. I'll be out. Nine okay?"

"Thanks, Doc. Nine will be fine," Palmer answered. Emma was already starting coffee in the kitchen. Doc turned toward her, and then hesitated. She was right; he needed the extra sleep.

Sleep wouldn't come, though. The resiliency of youth was long gone, and now even the sound habits of his middle life seemed to be failing. Maybe Blake was right in his kidding; maybe he was growing old! He had caught himself wondering as he looked at the firm-muscled figure of his son, so like Doc's memory of himself at the same age, and so unlike what the mirror showed now.

The situation at plant kept gnawing at his mind. He'd neglected of it, though aware of the growing tension, this sudden revival of the fear of atomic plants after so many years. Citizens' protest meetings. Bills submitted to Congress-bills that would force most atomic plants to move far from inhabited territory. But he'd put that all down to the normally noisy crackpot fringe. Still, if Palmer took it seriously, maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe things had really got worse since the breakdown of the Croton atomic plant a few months ago. It was only a minor mishap there, really. But it had resulted in a mild dose of radiation contamination over a hundred square miles or more; it seemed to be nobody's fault, but it had been a nine-days' newspaper scandal, and it might have served as a focal point for all the buried superstitions and fears about atomics.

Ferrel finally gave up and began dressing, surprised at how much time had gone already. The house was filled with the smell of hot biscuits, and he realized Emma was making a production of their last meal together on their only vacation. He heard her waking Dick and explaining the situation while he shaved. The boy sounded a lot less disappointed over the changed plans than she did; somehow, children seemed to care less than their parents about such things.

The boy was already at the table when Doc came down, poring over the pages of the early edition of the Kimberly Republican. He glanced up and passed over half of the paper. "Hi, Dad. Tough about today. But Mom and I decided we'd drive you to work in my car, so we'll see a little more of you. I guess this anti-atom craze is getting serious, eh?"

"Palmer's worried, that's all. It's his job to be overcautious." At the moment, Doc was more interested in the biscuits and honey.

Dick shook his head. "Better look at the editorial," he advised.

Ferrel turned to it, though he usually had no use for the canned editorials in the Guilden papers. Then he saw that this was signed and individual. It concerned the bill to evacuate all plants engaged in atomic transmutation or the creation of radioactive isotopes to areas at least fifty miles from any city of over ten thousand population. Superficially, the editorial was an unbiased study of the bill, but it equated such things as the wealth the industry had built on one side against the health of children, menaced by accidental release of radioactives on the other. Intellectually, it proved the plants must stay; emotionally, it said the exact opposite; and most of the readers here would think with their emotions first.

On the front page, the feature story was on a citizens' meeting for the bill. The number reported in attendance and the list of speakers was a second shock. Before National Atomics Products had been built near the city, Kimberly had been only a small town like many others in Missouri. Now it numbered nearly a hundred thousand, and depended for its prosperity almost entirely on National; there were other industries, but they were National's children. Even those which didn't depend on artificial isotopes still needed the cheap power that came almost as a byproduct.

No matter what the other Guilden papers screamed, or how crazy other cities went, it was incredible to find such a reaction here.

He threw aside his paper in disgust, not even bothering with the ball scores. He glanced grumpily at the time. "I guess I'd better get going."

Emma refilled his coffee, then limped up the stairs to finish dressing. Ferrel watched her slow steps unhappily. Maybe they should have bought one of the single-story houses that were coming back in fashion. A private escalator would be even better, but Dick's education didn't leave enough for that. Maybe in another year, though, when the boy was through school ...

"Dad." Dick's face was serious now, and his voice had dropped to hide his words from his mother. "Dad, we've been discussing this stuff at school. After all, medicine has to have some of the isotopes National makes, so it's important to all of us. And something's been bothering me. Suppose you get called up before Congress to testify on the danger?"

Ferrel hadn't thought of that. "Suppose I do?" It could happen; he was as well known as anyone else in the field. "I don't have anything to hide. It won't hurt me to give them the truth."

"If that's what they want. And if the man running it isn't after good publicity in the Guilden press." Dick started to go on indignantly, then threw a look toward the stairs and subsided. Emma was just starting down.

Doc swallowed the rest of his coffee and followed out to the boy's little turbine-powered convertible. Normally he preferred the slower but dependable bus to the plant, but he couldn't argue with Emma's wishes now. He climbed into the back, muttering to himself as the wind whipped at him. Conversation was almost impossible, between the sound of the air screaming around the sporty windshield and the muffled roar of the turbine, stripped of half its muffler to give a sound of false power. Well, maybe the girls at school who found such things attractive would outgrow it; Doc hoped so, though he had his doubts. Or maybe-he thought again-he was just growing old.

He watched the houses along the fifteen-mile road change from apartments to the endless rows of development huts that had grown up on all sides of Kimberly-prefabricated boxes with convertible rooms, set down on tiny lots that looked alike. Most of them showed evidence that the trailer had been their ancestor, and a few even had the wheels on which they'd been shipped-possibly indicating a lack of faith in the permanence of the owner's employment.

The road was jammed, and in places they slowed to a crawl. From a neighboring car, Doc heard the swearing against "ignorant Hoosiers" that was still almost a trademark of some Missourians. A horn blasted out and another driver yelled, "Get off the road, you damned atomjerks! We don't want you here!"

Atomjerks! Three years ago, being an atomjack was almost enough to insure good credit and respect. Times, it seemed, had changed.

There were other significant changes as they began to near the plant. More and more Vacant signs were in front of houses. Once there had been a premium on locations along the highway, but now apparently the nearness to the atom plant was changing all that.

He was almost relieved when they swung off the main road onto the private highway that led to the main gates. The sprawling, haphazard cluster of utilitarian buildings, offices and converter-housings covered acres of ground and was set back nearly a mile from the turnpike. Here the land was deserted, cared for only by the ground crews who kept down the weeds. Laws had already forced a safety zone around the plants, though it had been no great hardship to National. Behind the plant, lay a great tract of barren land, stretching back down a brackish little stream to a swamp further away. That, at least, was useful, since it served as a dumping ground for their wastes. Even the spur line from the main railroad was nearly two miles long.

Once it had been only a power plant, one of several built to feed electricity to St. Louis, modeled on the first successful commercial plant constructed by General Electric to use atomic power. But early in its life, two young scientists named Link and Hokusai had discovered a whole new field of atomics and had come here to try it out. It was known that atoms heavier than uranium-such as plutonium and neptunium -- could be made but generally grew increasingly unstable with added weight. The two men had found, however, that if the packing of new particles could be continued, eventually a new level could be reached that was again fairly stable. Such atoms-superheavies-had never existed in nature, but many proved far more valuable than the natural forms. National had grown to its present size on the development of the heavy isotopes, and power was now only a sideline, though the plant supplied all of Kimberly's power requirements.

Ferrel saw Emma stiffen as they neared the gate, but Dick had remembered and was already braking. She had an almost pathological fear of going inside, based on an unrealistic belief that her second child was stillborn because of radiation here. Her worst nightmares centered around the plant. But Doc had long since given up any attempt to reason with her, and she had learned to accept his continuing employment there.

He got out, self-consciously shaking Dick's hand, and watched them hurriedly drive off again. Then abruptly the solid familiarity of his surroundings snapped the blue funk he'd been in. The plant was a world by itself, busy and densely populated. Nothing could uproot it. He waved at the grinning guard and went inside, soaking up the sight, sound and smell of it.

The graveled walks were crowded with the usual nine-o'clock mass of young huskies just going on shift, and the company cafeteria was jammed to capacity with men seeking a last-minute cup of coffee. But the men made way for him good-humoredly as he moved among them. That pleased Doc, as always, and all the more because they didn't bother to stop their horseplay as they might have done for another company official. He'd been just Doc to them too long for that.

He nodded back at them easily, pushed through, and went down the walk toward the Infirmary, taking his own time; at his age a man could begin to realize that comfort and relaxation were worth cultivating. Besides, he could see no reason for ruining the good food in his stomach by rushing around in a flurry that gave him no time to digest it. He let himself in the side entrance, palming his cigar out of long habit, though he'd had the No Smoking signs removed years ago, and passed through the surgery to the door marked:

Physician in Charge.

As always, the little room was heavy with the odor of stale smoke and littered with scraps of this and that. His assistant was already there, rummaging busily through Ferrel's desk with the brass that was typical of the man; Ferrel had no objection to it, though; Blake's rock-steady hands and unruffled brain were always dependable in a pinch of any sort.

Blake looked up and grinned confidently. "Hi, Doc. Where the deuce do you keep your lighter fluid? Never mind, got it! ... Thought you were taking the day off?"

"Fat chance." Ferrel stuck the cigar back in his mouth and settled into the old leather chair, shaking his head. "Palmer phoned me at the crack of dawn. We've got an emergency again."

"So you're stuck with it. I don't see why any of us has to show up here-nothing serious ever pops up. Look at yesterday. I had three cases of athlete's foot-better send a memo down to the showers to use extra disinfectant-a boy with a running nose, the usual hypochondriacs, and a guy with a sliver in his thumb! They bring everything to us except their babies, and they'd have them here if they could. Nothing that couldn't wait a week or a month." He snapped his fingers. "Hey, I almost forgot. If you're free tonight, Anne and I are celebrating sticking together ten years. She wants you and Emma with us. Let the kid handle the office tonight."

"Sounds like a good idea. But you'd better stop calling Jenkins the kid." Ferrel twitched his lips in a stiff smile, remembering the time when he'd been as dead-serious as the new doctor; after only a week of real practice it was too soon to learn that destiny hadn't really singled him out to save the world. "He had his first real case yesterday. Handled it all by himself, so he's now Doctor Jenkins, if you please."

Blake had his own memories. "Yeah? Wonder when he'll realize that everything he did by himself came from you? What was it, anyway?"

"Same old story-simple radiation burns. No matter how much we tell the men when they first come in, most of them can't see why they should wear three ninety-five-percent efficient shields when the main converter shield cuts off all but one-tenth per cent of the radiation." Mathematically, it was good sense that three added shields would cut the radiation down to a mere eighty-thousandth of full force, but it was hard to convince the men that multiplying poor shields by the one good one could make that difference. "He managed to leave off his two inner shields and pick up a year's burn in six hours. Now he's probably home, sweating it out and hoping we won't get him fired."

It had been at Number One, the first converter around which National Atomic had built its present control of artificial radioactives, back in the days before Wemrath at Caltech found a way to use some of the superheavy isotopes as ultra-efficient shielding. Number One had the old, immense concrete shield, but converters were expensive and they still kept it for the gentler reactions; if reasonable precautions were taken there was no serious danger.

Blake chuckled. "You're getting old, Doc; you used to give them something to sweat about! Well, I'd better check up on the staff-someone might be a minute late, and then where'd we be?"

Ferrel followed him out, spotting young Jenkins in his office intent over some book. The boy nodded a tightlipped greeting. Doc returned it, being careful not to intrude on whatever he was studying. Jenkins was at least intelligent and willing to work. A week was too little to tell whether he had the stuff to stay on here or not, but he probably would if his nerves didn't get in the way. He seemed to be nothing but sinews with taut skin drawn over them, and his shock of blond hair fell over the deepestset blue eyes Doc had ever seen. He looked like a garretstarving young poet, and his nerves seemed as fine-drawn, but he had an amazingly good background of practical studies.

For a moment Doc considered going back to his office and catching a nap in the old chair. There was nothing to do that Blake couldn't handle. The Infirmary was already run the way he wanted it, and he saw no need to change for inspection. He could catch a few winks before Palmer called him. He started to turn back, then hesitated at the sight of Jenkins. At his stage, the boy might not understand sleeping on the job.

"If anyone needs me, I'll be at Palmer's office," he called out. Jenkins nodded, and Doc went through the side door and down the long walk toward the Administration building, overshadowed by the ugly bulk of the power-generating station -- the oldest building on the grounds.

Palmer's office had been designed to look like a proper place for an executive, including a built-in bar. But in the middle of it, serving as desk, was an old draftsman's table, littered with graphs, stained with ink and loaded with baskets. One corner showed the years of whittling where Palmer had chipped off improvised toothpicks, before he got his complete plates. The man himself was like his office: Tasteful, expensive clothes, a well-barbered look and the obvious intelligence in the heavy face suggested the good, executive. But now his suit coat lay on a leather couch and he was wearing a battered leather jacket. His hands bore the marks of hard labor, which had thickened the veins and swelled the knuckles; and he remained hard-muscled and active in body as a working construction engineer. He nodded Ferrel to a chair, but continued standing himself.

"Thanks for coming, Doc. I got the word late last night. There's even an AEC inspector with them, ready to snatch our power license if we aren't good boys. I don't mind him; the AEC plays as straight as anyone in government can. But the rest of them -- the Guilden reporters, anyhow -- are probably looking for trouble. I need every good man here I can get."

"It doesn't make sense," Doc protested. "They can't get along without the plants now; every hospital in the country would go crazy if we stopped production, and it's just as bad with the other users. They can't move the plants out where no workers would come."

Palmer sighed wearily. "They couldn't pass prohibition, either, Doc. But they did."

"But atomic plants aren't that dangerous!"

"Unfortunately, they could be," Palmer said. He looked dead with fatigue, and his reddened eyes indicated that he'd probably had no sleep at all. "We've had atomic power for a quarter-century, now. That means some of the early plants, built before we knew what we were doing -- I helped build some of them -- are probably in bad condition. It also means a whole generation of engineers and workers have been taking atomics for granted and getting careless. Since that accident at Croton, inspections have shown too much radioactive contamination around half a dozen plants. They need policing."

He dropped onto the couch, shoving piles of government bulletins aside, and massaging his temples. "I think we're clean here, Doc. But it's just our tough luck that old man Guilden got a tiny dose of poisoning from one of our early products he was misusing. He's gunning for us, using this as a front, and he swings a lot of weight. Oh, hell, I didn't want you for sympathy. I want to check on a probable ringer."

During the early days the companies had been plagued by suits alleging ruined health from radiation poisoning. A few had been legitimate, but most had been phonies trying to force a settlement with the threat of publicity for the company -- ringers.

"Plant worker?" Doc asked. They were the hardest to check, since almost any worker would have some slight trace of contamination.

"Delicatessen worker in Kimberly. I talked to her at her place last night, and I think she believes she's been poisoned. But somebody's using her. Expensive lawyer. He wouldn't give her doctor's name. I got her to give her symptoms -- and she looks sick."

He passed over a piece of paper, covered with his square, heavy writing. Ferrel studied it, trying to make sense out of what a layman considered the facts. Yet there was something of a pattern there. "I'd need more than that, at least a good blood sample, as a start," he protested.

"I've got it. I had that nurse of yours -- Dodd -- come with me, posing as my secretary. She bullied the woman into giving a sample while I was outside pretending settlement with the lawyer. Here!" He handed over a bottle, and Doc could see that Dodd had been careful to make a good job of it. She would, just as she'd be able to persuade the woman to do anything. "I'll expect a report on that, after this inspection mess. But what's your guess now?"

Doc gave it reluctantly. "It might be radiation. We can't police every place that uses our stuff. But it's probably leukemia. If she found some slipshod doctor who'd stopped keeping up with progress as well as with professional ethics, he might decide it could fool a jury. It wouldn't, of course."

"It wouldn't have to. We can't take a thing like this to court now. The publicity would ruin us, even if we were proved innocent later. And we can't settle, that would only make us look as if we were guilty." Palmer got up and started pacing about. "That's the trouble, Doc. One little accident that happens -- or that might happen -- is enough to prove danger. But there's no way to prove the absence of danger in a spectacular fashion that will hit the press. And I can't even swear that there is no danger!... Leukemia ... cancer of the blood cells...." "Well, something like that. It used to be one hundred percent fatal. It still will be if she has it and doesn't get treatment soon."

Palmer breathed a heavy sigh of relief. "Whew! At least there's a chance, then. If that's it, we can get a specialist who'll scare her with the facts. She ought to jump at a chance to ditch her lawyer for free treatment. Thanks, Doc. And let me know as soon as you find out for sure."

Ferrel went back to the Infirmary, frowning. If some unethical quack was trying to use the woman, he wanted the man's name. It took only a few of those to ruin the carefully built reputation of the whole profession! He was almost to the corner of the building before he saw Jenkins. He was outside, arguing with Jorgenson, one of the top production engineers. The man was huge, built like an ox, and almost as strong, from the stories told about him, but his mind wasn't secondary to his body.

Jenkins said something quickly, indicating a piece of paper in his hands, but Jorgenson brushed it aside with a flip of his finger. "And I say to hell with you, sonny, until you can make it stick. Go peddle your nostrums!"

The engineer swung around and stalked off. Jenkins stared after him tensely, then stepped back into the Infirmary.

Doc could make no sense of it, but he didn't like it. If the boy was a troublemaker ... Still, he had nothing to go on. Until he knew more, it was none of his business.

By the time Ferrel was inside, Jenkins had settled back to his usual stiff calm. He looked up at Doc, and his voice was normal. "I've told the nurses to expect more minor accidents already, Dr. Ferrel," he said. "I knew you'd want that, after seeing Mr. Palmer."

Ferrel studied the young man. "Why? Just what was I supposed to have seen Palmer about, anyhow?"

Jenkins controlled his impatience with the older man's obtuseness by an effort, but his voice was respectful. "The inspection, of course. It's all over the plant grapevine. I heard about it when I first came in. It isn't hard to know what that will do to the accident rate."

"Yeah." Doc grimaced at his own stupidity. He had been obtuse. "Good work, son. You were quite right."

There'd be accidents, all right. With men getting a major inspection under these conditions, they'd be under constant tension, and there was no better breeding ground for mistakes. With luck, there might only be the routine mishaps. But there was no way of being sure of such good fortune. Almost anything could happen.

Palmer had indicated that one accident could prove their lack of safety. They certainly couldn't afford any black marks on the books of the committee now. But with any operation as complicated as the creation of the superheavy isotopes, something was sure to go wrong when the men were on edge. He should have told Palmer to go to hell and stayed home!

Copyright © 1956 by Lester del Rey

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