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Gotta get me a rail gun!


The Best Perseids Ever




S. Foster



"But you promised!"

Wally Voria faced his son Lewis across the darkened patio.  "I'll make it up to you.  We can watch the Perseids together next year."

            "But, Dad," said Lewis, "there's practically gonna be a full moon this time next year!"

            "How about tomorrow night?  That's peak activity."

            Lewis shook his head.  "Dad, you know I'm leaving for youth orchestra camp tomorrow."

            Mrs. Voria appeared at the back door.  "Who was that on the phone?"

            "I'm needed at the catapult."

            "You know Lewis has been looking forward to this.  Can't they call someone else in?"

            "This is the trouble with being the go-to guy, m'dear."  He took her gently by the shoulders.  "I'm the guy they always go to."


            The complex was almost deserted when the jitney dropped Wally at the main gate.  As he approached the guard station, he looked up at the orange haloes of the sodium vapor lamps, which blotted out the midnight sky like Creamsicles gone nova.  During his two-hour, 220-mile rapid-rail trip, internal reflections on the train's semitransparent cabin windows had prevented him from seeing much of the progressively blackening sky--which, he noted ruefully, had gotten better and better for meteor-watching the farther he got from home.

Two technicians greeted him at the control center's door.  "Trajectory's faulty, Mr. Voria," said the first.  "Nobody spotted it until T plus 40."  A large computer monitor displayed the errant orbital curve.  Though not literally a catapult, the superconducting railgun they oversaw had essentially that function:  to launch cargo into low orbits at velocities above those safe for humans.


"Parts for the Array," said the other.  "72 cubic meters of metric nuts, bolts, and washers.  Do you think a meteor might have knocked the container off course?"

"Doubtful," said Wally.  "The worst a meteor could do is dent it."


"There's your error," Wally said after almost an hour.  "The launcher's new software didn't adequately compensate for temperature.  August heat."

A technician stood.  "Urgent page from J-PULTCON, sir.  It says... broken egg and gives coordinates.  What's it mean, 'broken egg'?  Is that some sort of code?"

"You must be new here," Wally said absently as he worked his console.  A moment later, he smiled.  "I'll tell you what it means--the container's breaking apart in the upper atmosphere... and the debris will pass directly over Benson!"

            The technicians looked at each other with concern.  One said, "Should they evacuate?"

            "No, no!  Of course not."  Voria called up a new trajectory plot on the monitor.  "Don't you see?  A half-million bits of metal are going to burn up in the atmosphere!"

He phoned home.  His wife answered:  "Are you coming back tonight?"

            "I'm stuck here.  No rail service until morning.  Honey--listen.  Is Lewis still watching the meteor shower?"

            "He's pouting.  He came back in to practice his Tchaikovsky."

            "Go back outside--both of you," he said, eyeing the monitor.  "In about half an hour, you're going to see the best Perseids ever.  I promise."