General Electronics laboratoriesMarch 1634

Something didn't fit.

Else Berding had gone to the break room for a cup of coffee. She came out to see Jennifer Hanson in the hallway, carrying on a conversation through a ham walkie-talkie. It was a little bit of a thing, no more than four inches high, with an eight-inch flex antenna sticking out the top.

"Far as I could tell from the phone message slip, it sounded like he was talking about some old CW transmitter that he hasn't used in years. Nothing high powered, but for sure a way to get on the air."

The other station came back. "That sounds pretty good, Jennifer. You think we could afford it for the club station?"

"Good chance of it. I'll be seeing him tonight, and we'll find out one way or the other."

"Okay, and if it don't work out, maybe we can build something up from junk box parts. Well, I've got a class in a few minutes, so I'll sign off with you now. W1PK, W8AAG."

"See you later. W8AAG, W1PK."

Else stopped dead. "A class? I've heard you talk to him before, but I thought he was someone here in the plant. Where is he?"

"Oh, that's Rolf Kreuzer. He's a junior at the high school. We've been scrounging around for some gear to put together a club station over there. The kids need it, if they're going to actually do anything with ham radio."

Else looked confused. "He's at the high school? What band were you using?"

"Two meters."

"I thought everybody said all those high frequency bands are line-of-sight, until the sky wave skip finally comes back."

"Well, it pretty much is."

"But, there's a hill between here and the high school! There isn't a line of sight between here and there."

"It's pretty close to one, though."

"Pretty close isn't the same thing at all. There has to be some other physical effect involved. Does Professor Müller know about this?"

Without waiting for an answer, Else charged off to her boss's office.

John Grover was just getting up to leave. Müller waved her in.

"Conrad, you asked us all to report any unexpected observations that have anything to do with the project . . . " Grover turned back, listening alertly.

Else described what she'd just seen. " . . . so you see, line-of-sight can't explain that. There must be another physical effect, to make that happen. It might be something we can use." Else stopped. She saw how Grover was standing. He was no longer poised like some prospector looking at gold dust on the bottom of a creek. Now he was leaning back against the door frame, and smiling slightly, like—a teacher listening to a favorite student? "You know about this." It was a statement, not a question.

"Uh, yeah, we do. There are several effects that can make a radio wave go around terrain obstructions. The army is making good use of them, too. Thing is, we don't think the Ostenders and the Austrians have figured it out yet, and we want to keep it that way as long as we can. So keep it quiet outside our group, okay?"

"Oh. All right. Well, I'd better go back to my desk, then."

By this time Jennifer had caught up, and they walked down the hall together. Else asked, "Did I do something foolish?"

"No, you did what they asked you to. I was about to tell you, but I didn't get my mouth open fast enough. I'm sooorrry. Forgive me?"

Else burst out laughing at the sight of a thirty-four-year-old wife and mother, pouting like a penitent little girl.

After they left, Grover stayed a moment longer. He shook his head. "Damn, that was brilliant."

Müller looked up at him. "Oh, yes. If we had two or three more like her, this project would move faster."

"You know why she spotted that so quick? Chuck Fielder and the rest of them teach their students to think like scientists."

****

The invitation to an interview at General Electronics had come as a complete surprise. John Grover had been honest, and so had Else.

"You understand, Mr. Grover, I've finished only about half the courses I planned. And even that is from study groups, not school courses."

"Yes, I do understand that, Fraulein Berding. But Conrad and I think the ones you've finished are the ones you need to do this job. Your last study group adviser thinks you have what it takes to learn the material.

"Of course, it would be better for you and us if you had the rest of the courses, and an experienced electronics engineer to work with on the job. But not much about the Ring of Fire was fair. There isn't anybody like that. What we have is a really good collection of books on vacuum tube theory in Gayle Mason's library. What we don't have is somebody who can put them to work. You're the first person to come in here who has the math and physics to really understand the electrical insides of a tube."

"Wouldn't it work better if I went further with physics before taking up something like this?"

"Probably. But let me lay out the situation. VOA runs on tubes, and they don't last forever. We only have a few. When the last ones burn out, we're off the air unless we figure out how to repair them by then. Most of the long-range transmitters for military and diplomatic radio are in the same situation, and some of them don't have any spares at all. And then there's a lot of transistor gear the army is using. They don't need tubes, but when something breaks, we don't have parts to fix them with. Before too many of them wear out or break down, we need to be building replacements. And once we run out of up-time parts we can salvage, that takes tubes. We're already behind schedule. You can imagine what could happen if we let too much more time slip away. Battles can be won or lost in seconds. Better something they can use in time than a perfect solution too late."

"I see. I'm still not sure. Could I look at these books, and see how well I can understand them?"

"Sure. I can't let them out of the building, but I'll take you up to the library. And there's one other thing. You won't be stuck completely on your own. You know Charnock Fielder? He has a lot of other demands on his time, but he does some consulting for us. He can help you figure things out if something doesn't make sense."

"That might make a great difference. I had one of his physics classes. He explains things very well."

The next day Else was back.

"Mr. Grover, I've thought very hard about what you said. I probably wouldn't be alive if the Emergency Committee hadn't taken me in three years ago. They offered me citizenship and school. Now, it seems, it's time to pay back. I believe I can learn what is in those books. I will join you and do my best." She reached her hand across the desk to shake. She looked very serious and very young at that moment.

That night she prayed. Lord, help me do what they ask of me. Research engineer . . .

She lay down to sleep, wondering whether she'd ever hear anything of her family again.

****

Else had studied hard before, but not like this. But the principles were starting to make sense. The vacuum wasn't quite good enough yet, and it would be a while before the materials people could give her group what they'd need to build a test model, but they had some idea of what they'd be able to get within the next few months. Meanwhile, she was working out a couple of trial designs on paper.

Late in the morning Else went out to the lab. She called across the room to Heinz Bennemann, "I need to study the pieces of that dead tube you took apart some more. Where do you keep them?"

"Third shelf in the cabinet, in the little red felt-lined box."

"Felt-lined, is it? Still the fine jeweler?"

"I was only a jeweler's apprentice. Now they call me a general technician. It means I'll never be done learning things. There's no such thing as mastering this trade."

"No? What do you think a research engineer is?" Else took the box over to a bench where there was a microscope and a precision mechanical stage, and settled down on a tall wooden stool. A flapping belt drive under another bench caught her eye.

"Heinz, shouldn't there be a guard over that belt?"

"We'll put it on when we're done. You know Marius Fleischer, here? No? He's a mechanic from the vacuum group. He just brought over a better roughing pump, and we're trying it out."

Fleischer put in, "It seems to need a few adjustments yet."

He and Heinz turned back to the assembly drawing.

****

Marieke Kettering was a good-natured woman in her mid-forties, with the gift of maintaining her good nature regardless of what kind of deadline pressure and turmoil were erupting around her. Being in charge of personnel and purchasing for both VOA and GE, she needed it. She heard the front door close, and then footsteps coming to her office.

"Gertrud! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you here? Sit."

"Oh, Marieke, we were just passing by. We're going into town for a little shopping."

"And who is this fine fellow in your lap?"

"This is my little nephew Erwin Spiegelhoff. Erwin, say hello to Frau Kettering."

"Gwathm!" exclaimed Erwin, with the sunniest of smiles.

Gertrud continued, "So, have you seen the new Brillo play yet?"

"No, but I want to. My cousin says it's insane, with them saying one thing in English, and then not exactly the same thing in German."

"Well, why don't I see if I can get us some tickets? Do you think Hermann would want to come too?"

Erwin slipped off his aunt's lap and started playing with his wooden duck on the floor. After a few moments of conversation, Gertrud noticed the silence. "Erwin?" She looked around the office. No Erwin. She stepped out into the hall, just in time to see the toddler disappearing through a doorway.

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