Chapter 14 -- Dangerous Ideas
Ruth looked up as Tommy came down the steps. She was sitting on the bench, at Nick’s head. He was still asleep.
Tommy just put his finger to his lips and turned his back to her as he went into the aft berth.
The flooring in the cabin area rested on a collection of storage tanks, batteries and engines. There was a hatch to get to that area between the bed and the door. He closed the door and pulled up the ring.
He’d stashed the mess left by Nick in the tool bin, but he hadn’t given the rest of the place an in-depth inspection.
I didn’t know we were heading out so soon.
The Sterling engine was turning away, clearly spinning the shaft to the generator. Not totally silent. Of course, no moving parts would be, but still, the only sound was the bearing noise from the spinning generator.
Not even the rumble of the burners.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He’d turned the diesel burners off, and the generator was still spinning!
The Sterling’s pistons were being driven by a heat difference, supposedly between the hot burner and the cold water of the lake. It wasn’t a perpetual motion machine. It couldn’t generate energy from nothing.
And that was what his readings hinted. Yesterday, he’d logged the fuel gauge at 75% full. Since then, he’d gone to Chicago, up and down the river, and half way to Racine.
He remembered the fuel consumption before the upgrade. That 44-gallon tank could run the engine for a day and a half. 44 gallons for 36 hours, or round to 1.2 gallons per hour.
If the gauge was correct, he’d started with 33 gallons. If the Sterling/electric hybrid was no better than the diesel it replaced, then he should have burned at least a dozen gallons. It should read about half full.
But it was still only a whisker below the 3/4 mark. He’d seen that, but kept ignoring it as first he marveled at the Sterling’s efficiency, then worried that the gauge was stuck.
But when he’d turned the burners off, and the battery gauge stayed at 100% while propelling the Marissa through the lake’s chop, he couldn’t ignore it any more.
Rummaging through the toolbox produced a flashlight. He slipped down into the tight quarters and aimed the spot of light at the plumbing.
There was the fuel line, clamped a few inches away from the burner exhaust. Both came from the stern. He followed them forward several feet until he found the burner.
It was a tiny little thing, handcrafted. He imagined Nick made the thing himself. It was no bigger than a cup of coffee. There was a sprayer, and an electric sparker to start it burning.
He tugged on the cable, certainly the one that ran up to the little burner throttle topside. There were a couple of blue sparks, and then a yellow flame popped on, producing more smoke than heat. And that heat was vented straight to the exhaust. None of the diesel flame went anywhere close to the Sterling engine.
It was a dummy. Something to make people think the Marissa was burning diesel to move. Just like the Harley sounds on the motorcycle -- a hoax.
“Nick, what have you done here?”
Tommy traced the fuel line. The whole diesel tank had been replaced. The new one was only a few quarts, stacked on top of a metal cabinet. There were twist fasteners he could open with his hands.
Inside was a maze of equipment he couldn’t begin to understand -- not in the time he had for this. There were pipes, and lots of electronics.
The feeling of driving with his eyes closed resurged on his doubts. He’d left a dog in control of the ship.
I need to get back to the wheel. He would demand that Nick explain this, once he woke up.
It was a welcome splash of cold water in the face when he needed it the most. Running on too little sleep, he had been asleep at the wheel, eyes open and standing up, but dozed off. Until the rain started. It was just a sprinkle. By the time he’d tightened the hood and wiped the water out of his eyes, it was already a spotty drizzle.
He checked the course. He’d drifted too far to the east. Glad that no one saw he’d let the ship drift off course, Tommy put the Marissa back the right compass bearing and set the autopilot. There was no reason to hold the wheel the whole trip -- not if he couldn’t do a better job than the simple gadget.
Shadows in the hatchway announced Ruth before she appeared. He straightened and resolved to be civil.
His dream, before the rude awakening, had something to do with being scolded by Mom for not sharing with his friends. She was a stickler for hospitality.
Frowning, he realized neither Nick nor he had invited anyone over to the house, not since her death. He met his friends at the mall or at school. Apparently, Nick had his friends at work as well. But when she’d been alive, they would have been invited to the house.
Will I ever see the house again?
The thought itself was startling. Was this permanent? Was he on the run forever? What about Kati? What about his finals?
Somehow, he couldn’t imagine going back to school now. Not unless this... thing was resolved.
Ruth smiled. “Ah. Nick is awake. He asked to see you. Should I steer?”
Tommy moved aside. “It’s on autopilot. Give me a yell if we’re heading for another boat, or there’s a another rain line.”
He brushed by her, heading down the steps. Nick could talk, at last.
Bert was lying in front of the bench. If he could read the dog’s expression, he’d have to describe it as mournful. Nick was staring at the ceiling.
He blinked and turned slowly to look at him. “Tommy. Get to Marvin.”
“What’s going on? Who’s chasing us?”
He was slow to respond. “It’s all my fault. I talked them into it. I didn’t know it would be like this.”
Tommy put his hand on his arm. Nick looked at him again. “Tommy?”
Is his arm hot? It could just be me. He’d been out in the rain.
He looked back up to the hatchway, but she wasn’t in sight. “Nick, I checked the diesel. What have you done to the power system?”
Nick’s blank stare revealed a lot. He was still out of it, no matter what Ruth said. It had to be more than just a broken leg. Just how serious was it? Should he be turning towards shore -- get to the nearest hospital? He could call for help on channel 16.
But that would be turning themselves over to the Cleaners, at best. And they were the ones who shot him.
“Nick, we need to get you to the hospital.”
“No,” he was firm. “Get to Marvin. Rescue Marvin.”
“We need to get you help.”
“’Sokay. Marissa’ll take care of me.”
He blinked. “Oh, right. Ruth.”
He patted Tommy’s hand. “Good sailor. You’ll get us there.” He closed his eyes, and Tommy knew it would be a lost cause to get any more out of him.
“Bert. Watch him for me, okay?”
The dog nodded in his slow deliberate fashion.
Tommy went back up the steps, and when Ruth saw his face, her hopeful expression dropped.
“You have to tell me.” He was firm.
“I don’t know.” She looked aside.
He shook his head. “No. He’s got a fever and I’ve got to have a good reason why I shouldn’t call the Coast Guard right now.
“Nick would have told me, if he could. He can’t. So, it’s up to you. Explain just what kind of crazy mess we’re in, or I’ll take the Marissa and my father to the nearest town. Forget this Marvin. I won’t risk Nick for him.”
She sighed and nodded. “Okay. What do you want to know?”
“Who are you, and what is this company Nick works for? I’ve had it up to here with corporate secrecy. What is this project he’s been working on?”
She moved to the side bench as Tommy took up his position behind the wheel. He glanced at the GPS, but put his full attention on her.
“It’s an old company, and you wouldn’t know the name. It’s closely held; the bastard child of a dozen or so of the big names of American industry. It’s sole purpose was to buy and hold ideas.”
She nodded. “Dangerous ideas. Ideas that could cost the big names big dollars.”
“What do you mean? Patents and such?”
“Most of these were never patented. Most never got that far. You’ve heard of some of them. There was the carburetor that’d let a stock Chevy get 200 miles per gallon. There is the filter that’ll extract gold from seawater. Room temperature superconductors. Medical processes. New alloys. The list goes on and on.”
“Economics. A company or industry makes a predictable stream of cash from their products. If someone comes along with a discovery that undercuts or obsoletes their existing line, then it makes sense to buy out or even sabotage the new invention before it can be ‘born’. If they don’t they could be out of business before they could turn their factories around to embrace the new technology.
“It’s been done forever.” She laughed. “You should see the files! The company must have been a going concern back in the steam engine age. Can you image a steam rocket powered locomotive? You’d never believe the diagrams.”
Tommy frowned. “Nick mentioned the carburetor, but I thought it was just one of those things like perpetual motion machines. Something for nothing. You have anything like that in your files?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. They haven’t repealed the laws of physics.”
Tommy tasted the thought. He couldn’t imagine sitting on a new discovery.
“How could Nick have agreed to work for a company like that? I know my father. There isn’t a gadget he hasn’t fallen in love with.”
She nodded, “Right! That’s the thing. The company had a change in upper management, and they decided to ‘monetize’ some of their assets.
“The patent landscape changed. Patent holding companies cropped up, not really making anything. They just held patents, waiting for a real inventor to try to make something, and then they would sue for patent infringement. ‘Patent trolls’ is what they’re called.
“The company saw some of their hidden ideas rediscovered, and then patented. People were making money off of ‘their’ ideas.
“They hired Nick, and he hired us -- all to unearth those files and turn them into viable, public inventions.” Her face took on a contemplative glow. “He was so happy. I think the hardest struggle was to keep things secret from you. Time and time he said, ‘Tommy would love this!’”
Tommy looked out on the horizon. The light was fading. Somewhere on the other side of the clouds, the sun was going down. It had taken longer to get to Racine than he’d thought.
“What went wrong?”
The glow faded from her face. “Management changed their minds. I think our reports scared them. The order came to shut everything down. Nick fought it. He thought they would listen to reason.
“And we stood with him. Some of us. We wrote and signed a memo that outlined the money to be made, the public responsibility to share the discoveries, and the moral obligations we felt.
“That’s when they sent in the security troops to shut us down. We had all signed NDA’s -- non-disclosure agreements -- but it was clear they thought it was going to take more than legal documents to keep our mouths closed.”
Tommy’s face went hard. “Nick tried to evade them, and they shot him.”
She blinked her eyes, and he realized she was fighting tears. “And they shot him,” she agreed.