Whiz: 1953: The New Adventures of Bulletboy, Chapter 5: Atomic Death

by Dan Swanson

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The University of Chicago was the site of the first working atomic reactor on Earth, and Todd Drake and Tomas Thomas had both chosen this school because U.C. was the acknowledged leader in atomic energy-related fields. Many of their labs were held in rooms in the building where that reactor was built. U.C. was also the safest place to learn about atomic energy.

Enrico Fermi, who had been one of the chief architects on the atomic pile, had been obsessive about safety and safety precautions. The “Atomic Building” had special safety features such as alarms, various types of movable radiation shields, emergency showers, protective gear in lockers throughout the building, and a lead-lined holding tank for containing radioactive waste. U.C. had a fairly standard campus police force, but not many campus police forces could boast that they had an eight-officer squad especially trained to deal with a variety of radiation hazards.

One big perk for both young men was a seminar called Advanced Topics in Atomics. It was largely unstructured, and participants designed their own curriculum. Tomas and Todd wanted to contribute to the medical field, so they decided to build an instrument to deliver highly calibrated doses of gamma radiation (the most dangerous, and potentially the most useful type) to a target. It was essentially a gamma ray projector, and the details were somewhat complicated.

The less dangerous forms of radiation, alpha and beta, consist of very small charged particles moving at high velocities. The alpha particle is a helium nucleus with no electrons and a charge of +2, while the beta particle is a free electron with a charge of -1. However, gamma radiation consists of photons very similar to the photons in x-rays. The difference between gamma rays and x-rays is a difference in energy. X-rays are very high energy, which is why they can be dangerous. Gamma rays have even higher energy and are even more dangerous.

In the standard x-ray machine, x-rays are produced by aiming a beam of high-velocity electrons into a target of some kind. The beam is aimed by controlled electromagnetic fields, the same principle behind the television.

In an x-ray machine, the target is made of metal, such as copper. The interaction between the electrons in the beam and the metal atoms in the target causes the fast-moving electrons to slow down. Under the correct conditions, when an electron slows down, it releases a photon. A beam of electrons, aimed at the target, produces a shower of photons emitted from the target.

The energy of the photons depends on how much the electron slows down. The faster the electrons are moving when they hit the target, the more energetic the released photons will be. If the emitted photons have high enough energy, they are called x-rays. If the emitted photons have even higher energy, they are called gamma rays. Gamma rays are dangerous to living things — they damage living tissues, and a large enough dose can cause enough damage that the exposed tissue dies. There are many unpleasant side-effects, and radiation sickness is extremely painful.

On the other hand, if the gamma radiation could be tightly focused, and would only strike tissues designated by a physician, what a fantastic surgical tool it would be. Instead of cutting out a cancer, you could just aim your gamma ray scalpel at the cancer, and it would die — and the tightly focused radiation would not damage the other tissues around it.

The problem with building gamma ray surgical tools like this was that it was extremely difficult to produce gamma radiation, much less control it. The electrons had to be going much faster than in an x-ray machine, which required more power, and more power was not just harder to generate, it was harder to control. And, since the shower of photons from the target flew off in all directions, not just the same direction as the electron beam, this meant that whenever the gamma ray projector was working, it would be spewing dangerous radiation in all directions. The x-ray machines got around that by producing the x-rays in a spherical chamber which only had a small hole in it, and all the x-rays flying around in other directions were blocked, but it was difficult producing a chamber that would block gamma rays.

Todd and Tomas had a plan for dealing with these problems. They thought that an electromagnetic target might be able to slow the electrons down more efficiently than a metal target, and also control the scattering of the emitted gamma rays. It was easier to generate pulses of high power than continuous high power, so they thought of using a pulsed electron beam rather than a continuous electron beam. The higher power produced faster electrons, the electromagnetic target slowed them down more efficiently, and Todd and Tomas’ instrument was able to generate controlled bursts of gamma radiation. Their design was not a great improvement over the current devices used to produce gamma radiation, but the new techniques that the two had developed promised rapid improvement in the years to come.

For reasons of safety, none of the students was allowed to actually work with radiation of any kind, except during specified periods during the week when the hazard team was assigned to the lab building. Last week’s test of their prototype had been the first time that they had actually produced measurable pulses of gamma radiation, and the two were cautiously pleased. But the pulses varied widely in both intensity and duration. They had to improve the reliability of the device.

On Saturday, the day after the fight, Todd and Tomas headed to the lab and started work on the power supply and the pulse-generating circuits. They would make their modifications today and tomorrow, have them approved on Monday by their faculty adviser, and then do another smoke test on Tuesday. Then they would go back to the drawing board and go through the cycle again.

Suddenly, the door to their lab was kicked open so hard that the window shattered. Four men with drawn guns rushed into the room. Todd recognized them from the group of loudmouths who were at the match the night before. Tomas noted that the guns all had silencers. To him, this was ominous — if these guys were planning on just threatening them, they wouldn’t need silencers.

The one that Todd had challenged to a fight the night before seemed to be the leader. “Look what we have here, boys! The Lone Ranger and Tonto! Looks like we got the drop on them, and the Ranger ain’t got his silver bullets ready. Ain’t that a shame.”

“You boys lost us a lot of money last night, particularly you, Tonto!” He waved his gun at Tomas. “We’re gonna take payment outta your hides! Now, boys, get your hands up!”

Tomas had already raised his hands. Todd was watching him closely. Tomas looked at the guns, and then at Todd, and saw Todd start when he noticed the silencers. Seeing that Tomas was now watching him, Todd snatched a solder pot from his lab bench and threw it at the criminals. He and Tomas immediately dropped to the floor and rolled behind lab benches. As hot solder splattered the bad guys, two of them fired wildly. One of the rounds hit the irradiation projector.

There was a brilliant flash, and the projector exploded — and every Geiger counter in the room went crazy. Todd was out of line-of-sight of the explosion behind his bench, but debris from the explosion battered the gunmen.

Scared witless by the explosion and the Geiger counters, the four turned and ran, leaving a trail of blood. Todd opened the cabinet in the bottom of the bench and started pulling out the contents, which were lead-lined blankets, and immediately draped one over himself. These things were heavy, but that hardly mattered now. He picked up several others, and, holding one up between himself and the gamma ray projector, he advanced until he could lay a blanket over Tomas, then dropped several others over the wreckage on the lab bench. The clattering of the Geiger counters had dropped significantly the first instant after the explosion, and with the radioactive remains of the gamma projector covered in several layers of lead, they quieted further, reaching a level that Todd knew from his training was safe for a short time.

He quickly ran into the lead-lined emergency room and slapped the big red panic button. Immediately, alarms started going off throughout the building, letting everyone within hearing range know that there was a potentially deadly radiation hazard in the building. Todd went back out into the lab, picked up a Geiger counter, and started examining Tomas. But since Tomas was more radioactive than was safe, Todd needed to do something to help him in a hurry. Fortunately, Tomas was unconscious.

Pulling the blankets off of himself and Tomas, Todd tossed them over the pile that was already on the bench top, and the Geiger counters slowed down a little more. He put on a pair of work gloves, then carefully pulled Tomas into the emergency room and into the small shower, then turned the shower on. Pulling a protective anti-radiation suit from a locker, he quickly pulled off his clothes and put on the suit.

Carefully taking off Tomas’ clothes, Todd then stuffed the contaminated clothes and gloves into a lead box designed specifically for that purpose. He made sure that the water from the shower was streaming over as much of Tomas’ body as possible, hopefully to carry some of the radioactive particles down into the special emergency holding tank below the building.

Todd could see no external injuries. Tomas had been below the trajectory of the flying debris, but he had been closest to the exploding gamma projector and had taken the biggest dose of radiation. The lead-lined blankets in the bench he was hiding behind had protected Todd, more or less. Todd’s worst dose had occurred when he was moving Tomas, and he was certain that he was well below the limit in which he would even notice anything. He was equally certain, as dread crept into his heart, that Tomas had received a fatal dosage.

By this time the hazard team, wearing protective gear, had entered the lab, first cautiously and then more quickly as they realized that the lab itself was empty and the radiation levels were fairly safe. As his men cautiously searched the room, the team leader saw the two of them in the emergency shower and came over to ask some questions. Before he could say anything, Todd spoke up.

“There were four men with guns in here, and they were all exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Did anyone see them?”

“Not as far as I know, but we did see blood on the floor. They went out the back!”

Todd gave the man orders, his urgency making him sound hoarse. “Call your captain and tell him that those gunmen need to be decontaminated as quickly as possible, along with anyone who touches them. With the radiation dosage they took, they’ll be sick in a few hours, and without treatment, they will probably die within a week!”

The policeman blanched under his headgear. He hadn’t signed up for the campus police with this type of thing in mind. “What about the people who touch them?”

“Secondary radiation is unlikely to hurt them, but they ought to take a good long shower and burn their clothing. You had better alert the Chicago Police as well, and they ought to make sure that the radio and TV stations broadcast a warning. And get a doctor here as soon as you can!”

The squad leader ran to do these things. Even though his team was trained, this was the first actual emergency they had faced, and he was relieved that there was someone involved who seemed to know what needed to be done. Before he picked up the phone, however, Todd yelled at him again.

“You and everyone else who enters this room before we get the mess cleaned up needs to stay here, so we don’t spread the radioactivity any further. As long as the blankets stay in that pile, and we keep the suits on, we’ll be safe, but we need to wash the suits down with decontaminate solution before we take them off!”

Todd was absolutely devastated. He couldn’t think of any way that their device could have emitted such an intense burst of radiation. The wild bullet must have somehow dumped the five-thousand-volt, 500-microfarad capacitor they were adding to the power supply directly through the pulse generator. But they would never know, as the explosion had destroyed the prototype beyond recognition or recovery.

But it didn’t matter how it had happened. What mattered most to him was that his best friend was already dead, but didn’t know it yet, and there was nothing Todd could do to help him. He supposed he might someday take a little consolation in knowing that the bad guys would soon be very very sick, and if they didn’t get to a doctor in a couple of hours, they would all likely die. But that sure didn’t help Tomas Thomas.

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