Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 3 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

Bob Hill, dressed in suit and tie, looking every bit an independent consultant, frowned at the airport shuttle.  He was parked out in the cheap part of the lot.  Fiberglass.  Just fiberglass.   Lightning flashed, and the thunder was only three seconds later, less than a mile.  
A fiberglass hull is no shield at all.  They need to put a metal mesh in the mix.  The conductive metal box of a car had always comforted him—no one was hurt by a lightning strike inside a Faraday cage.  The electricity passed around the box and never went inside.
The shuttle pulled up to the parking lot station labeled G13 and he had to make a dash for his car, his briefcase over his head.  At least it kept the driving rain out of his eyes.  By the time he fumbled with the keys and started the engine, he was shivering and totally soaked.
No wonder the pilot said we would be making good time—he was trying to beat this storm front.
Bob’s preferred route home from the airport skirted around the city.  It bypassed the heavy in-town traffic for a two-lane farm road that was lightly traveled.
In the downpour, Bob couldn’t see a single other vehicle.
I can’t see the road either.
He plowed though a low section where water was flowing several inches deep over the road.
Just keep moving.  It’ll clear out in a little bit.
He glanced at his briefcase, still covered in beads of water.
Freelance consulting felt like walking through syrup.  With Diana’s paycheck and their savings, working for himself had seemed like a good idea.  He’d printed some business cards and started calling and emailing his wide collection of contacts.
“Hi, Joe.  Bob Hill here.  I’ve started an independent consulting practice.  Know any good leads?”
At first, it seemed like he had his pick of assignments, but meetings and the overhead of running a small business were killing him.
And he wasn’t doing well.  This last assignment required a day trip to Dallas to deliver his report in person.  He wasn’t proud of the work.  
In his last job, he’d dug through scientific papers, looking for commercial gold.  
Often, scientists working at universities were tightly focused on expanding or disproving a theory.  A researcher could be overjoyed at his success in adding a copper atom to a molecule which didn’t even have a common name, just a string of symbols.  Proving that his theory was correct gave the researcher a better reputation and a better chance of getting funding for his next project.
It took someone like Bob Hill to notice that his process could make computer chips run faster.
When he had taken this job for Terrain Resources, they wanted him to find new land resources—how to make money from land.  They already knew about farming, housing, mining, and even newer things like wind turbine farms, so he had ended up searching mountains of papers and reports, looking for opportunities the original researchers had missed.  But he was doing the same thing they did.  He had to struggle to out-think the experts in their own field.  
Something has to change.  Consulting wasn’t making enough money to maintain his family.  
I may have to go back to work.  There were three corporations near this very road that might take him on—once he’d proven to himself that he was a failure at doing it alone.
His mind drifted back to his orphaned idea folder.  There was one that kept bothering his mind.  The original author, Dr. Lam Bellerman, had proposed a novel mathematical background for plasma confinement.  
It was quite a stretch, rethinking the math into something that could actually be built.  But in Bob’s proposal, he outlined how such a plasma bottle might be created.  If it could, the confinement pressure would no longer be supplied by intense magnetic fields, but by the strange space limits that came out of Bellerman’s math.
It would be a fantastically valuable invention, if it could ever be created.  His old company might just have been able to pull it off.  High intensity fields were needed to start the Bellerman space folding, to create that strange sphere of different space where the intensely hot plasma could be contained.  It wasn’t something a lone experimenter could come up with in his garage.
If I could just find a flaw in the math, then I could forget about it, and go on to something more productive.
The road approached the river, and began winding.  The downpour dropped his visibility down to five or six feet and he had to slow to a crawl to keep his tires from skidding.
I just hope no one is coming up behind me.
Flash-Crack!  Lightning struck a power pole just twenty feet off to the side.  The whole landscape went green as a transformer exploded and vaporized the copper wire inside.  Bob skidded to a halt, his right tires off the shoulder.
He blinked, trying to clear his eyesight from the flash image.
What is that?
Green sparks and ... other things were in the air—the only things close enough to be seen in the downpour.
A glowing ball came drifting down, directly towards him.  The size of a toy balloon or a cantaloupe, it bounced weightlessly off the hood of his car.  Three seconds seemed like an hour.  It drifted inches above the metal, right before his eyes.  Then it exploded with a loud pop!
Ball lightning.  He’d never expected to actually see it in person.  There’d been thousands of reports, and dozens of theories.  None had proved out.  No one had figured out how the plasma of the lightning could be bound up into an enclosed sphere with no external forces.
The parallels to his own musings were startling.
Could ball lightning be Bellerman space?
A car swooshed beside him, horn blaring out its driver’s surprise.
Bob glanced at the rear mirror and pulled back onto the road.  He drove slowly, but his mind was elsewhere.
Cheerleaders in orange and white were clustered around Sam Frederick’s new red convertible as James finished practice and walked across the parking lot towards his pickup.  Suzie was with them.
He nodded, and Suzie trotted over to join him.
“Hi James.”  She moved close enough put to her hand on his chest.  “Can I have a ride after the game Friday?  I’d love to go with you.”
“Uh, sure.  Do you need a ride now?”
“Oh, no.”  She looked towards the rest of the cheerleaders.  “The squad still has another hour yet.”
“I can wait.”  It would be a stretch.  His parents were now letting him drive routinely.  Maybe they wouldn’t notice the delay.  Dad was hard at work in his office, day and night.  Mom worked until closing.  Still, he hadn’t officially told them he was carrying his friends home.
She smiled.  “It’s okay.  I have another ride.”
James watched her return to her group.  He sighed and then headed home.  It’d been a week since she first asked him, and not much had come of it.  Last Wednesday, she’d declined a ride at the last minute when she realized she’d have to squeeze in on the bench seat with three guys.
It was frustrating.  Slick had even asked for a ride today, and James had turned him down just on the suspicion Suzie would ask.
The girl was too much on his mind.  He never listened to gossip before, but now anything about Suzie caught his attention.  She’d been Sam’s girlfriend until a couple of weeks ago.  He hadn’t known that.
When he pulled into the driveway, he noticed the garage door open and his father digging into the stacks of old storage boxes.
“What’s up?”  he asked.
“Hunting for the old forth-of-July fireworks we never got around to shooting.  Do you know where they are?”
They hunted together and found them.
“What do you want them for?”
Bob pulled out a larger rocket, with a long stick glued to its side.  “Just some research.  I read that there was a group down in Florida that fired rockets trailing wire into thunderstorms to trigger lightning strikes.  I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Cool.  Can I help?”  Off in the distance, he could see a line of clouds approaching.
“Sure.  Let’s get up to the fence line.  If it works, I don’t want to be anywhere near the house.”
Bob send James into the house to find one of the clicker fire starters they used to start the gas grill.  By the time he got up to the fence, his father had secured some fine wire to the end of the stick, and was unwinding several feet from the tiny plastic spool.
They stuck the rocket into a three-liter soda bottle and waited until the clouds got closer.  James claimed the honors.
“Now when you light it, run towards the house.  Don’t stay anywhere near the fence.”
James nodded, a grin on his face.  Dad came up with the coolest things.  When was it—last year?  They’d videotaped a science project showing that gunpowder burning by itself in the air just burned, but if you confined it—they had used a plastic film canister taped shut—it exploded.
Oh, Dad gave him the safety lectures, and warned him about the fatal dangers of pipe bombs, but his Dad had done so many cool things when he had been a kid, and he wasn’t afraid to teach him.
The clicker sparked a couple of times before the butane flame lit.  He poked it at the fuse, and when it sparked he backed off.
“Get farther back!”  his father ordered.
He stepped back another few paces.  
Just then, the rocket ignited and slowly climbed, dragging the spool of wire off the ground and arching into the wind.
“Well, that was pathetic,” Dad said.   “The wire tangled.  It barely got a dozen feet high.”
“Let’s do another one!”
They collected the spent rocket and looked at the tangle of wire and the melted plastic spool. 
Bob Hill shook his head.  “No, that was the only thirty gauge wire I had.  The rocket was too small and obviously I don’t know how to let it unspool the wire.  I’ll have to think about it before next time.  And I’ll need a more powerful rocket.”

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