The science in this ficlet is, deliberately, at least a little silly, though grounded in actual results.
Meigs leaned over the controls and, his lips curling into a sneer, forced one lever up while pulling another one down. “Nuts to you and your exper—”
His voice died in his throat as a rumble arose from deep within the building. The two men felt it ascending through their feet and legs as much as they heard it: the grimly satisfied sound of machinery set into motion. A shrill note on the high end of the audible range joined the low growl in angry accompaniment, warning lamps under amber glass began to pulse, and gauges across the board started to climb from the green towards the red.
The gauge-needles touched the yellow, and fell back.
Stadler let the sudden silence rest over the room for a moment, and then he spoke. “Sounds like you blew one of the drift-stabilizers out of alignment. Got a toolbox around here?”
“Funny,” spat Meigs.
“Come on, man,” said Stadler. “You need me, and I need you.”
“What,” Meigs asked, “might the brain trust of the State Science Institute need that I could possibly provide?”
“You oversaw the dismantling of Taggart Transcontinental machinery, didn’t you?”
“Parts to the highest bidder,” Meigs said, nodding.
“Well, what if I told you that I could do more than fix the Xylophone? What if I said could rebuild it better than it was before? And all I’d need would be the Rearden Metal from any one of half a dozen things that Dagny Taggart had ordered to be built. Now, I’ll wager, she’s too besotted with John Galt’s plan for the apocalypse to even remember all the places that Rearden Metal ended up.”
“You could,” Meigs suggested, “boost the range?”
“For starters, sure,” Stadler said. “I mean, pure rhenium or iridium would be preferable, but Rearden Metal would do, in a pinch.” Stadler was half bullshitting here. He wasn’t sure how much he could improve on the existing design, but his mental calculations left him pretty confident he could boost the effective range by twenty or twenty-five percent. And Rearden Metal was, he could see, not the optimal choice for the primary drive coils. The inner lining of the cavitrons could be replaced, too—but the Rearden stuff would serve for present purposes. “That’s not even the half of it,” he told Meigs.
Meigs was, it seemed, a bit of a temperamental drunk. When he was in his cups, he could veer quickly from anger to ebullience. “Tell me more,” he said, in a tone that was probably meant to be cajoling.
Stadler had spent his adult life dealing with academics, and he knew how many of them were, at heart, frustrated actors, delighted at the prospect of captive audiences in their lecture halls. Ham it up, he told himself—this is your chance to shine.
“John Galt was my student,” he said. “I saw his static-electricity motor. Or, rather, the prototype of it. I read the blueprints. And, two nights ago, while I was trying to sleep under the leaking roof of a derelict gas station, I realized two things. First, that John Galt’s motor would never work in the way that his notes claimed. And second, that it could work—and with the resources of Project X, I could tap into that same energy source.
“Galt was my student, and so, I know how he thinks. I know more than he realizes—more, indeed, than I thought I did. They say a gun to the head concentrates the attention quite effectively. Well, friend, John Galt put a gun to all our heads, and it concentrated my attention, all right.
“I started in astronomy, did you know that? My first project was confirming and refining the map drawn of our Galaxy using radio telescopes. I ate, drank and breathed Doppler shifts. The twenty-one-centimeter band was my life. And I confirmed that our Galaxy is rotating too fast for the gravitational pull of visible matter to be holding it together. But something is holding it together, a new kind of matter that we did not know about, a kind of matter that is invisible to our ordinary senses.
“My work was to rule out some alternatives to the ‘dark matter’ hypothesis, and to propose candidates for what new subatomic particles the dark matter might be made of.”
Meigs interrupted: “Galt’s machine runs on dark matter?”
Stadler allowed himself a grin. “Yes. I figured it out, once I knew that his ‘motor’ could not work in the way the blueprints claimed, but that he would never have launched this scheme if he didn’t have a power source to rely on. The ‘motor’ catalyzes the conversion of ordinary matter into axions—dark matter particles—and back again. Ordinary matter, even air, comes back unstable and breaks down, releasing energy.” Stadler paused. “Knowing Galt, he’s probably half-convinced himself that the story he sold to his cronies is the truth, and it runs on static-electricity magic. Particularly because the truth means admitting to himself how much he owes to my work.”
“Unstable?” Meigs asked. “What do you mean, ‘unstable’?”
“Radioactive,” Stadler replied. “Unless he’s careful, he’ll fry his gonads before long. Bad news for Dagny Taggart, I suppose.”
“And you want to build that?” Meigs exclaimed.
“We can use the Xylophone facility to shield the radiation,” Stadler said. “And this place is overflowing with detectors to measure energy output of all sorts. We’re far better equipped to do things correctly than Galt is, in whatever basement or garden shed he’s been working in.”
“Say you’re right,” Meigs said. He licked his lips. “Let’s say you’re right,” he began again. “First, we can make the Xylophone into a weapon. A better, more terrifying weapon than it is, even now. And then…”
“First, we win the war,” Stadler said. “And then, we win the peace.”
“We can sell electricity.”
“We can deal with electricity,” said Stadler. “That’s not always the same thing.”
“Right, right.” Meigs was elated. “I know how politics works. We can trade power—for power.”
Stadler took a seat at the Xylophone control panel. He leaned back. “Cuffy, I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Meigs laughed. He turned to go and fetch more alcohol, and so he did not see Dr. Robert Stadler interleave his fingers before his mouth, or the light from the control panel that played over the scientist’s glasses, turning their lenses into mirrors.