The next day, Philippe gave Randy a briefing on what the engineers had found out about the silver ball the Silverhairs had generated. Jim Merriweather was there too, arm still in a cast. The three of them floated around a conference table, fingertips keeping them levitated at the same height in Hygiea's low gravity.
``The silver ball seems to be made of the same material as the Silverhair, but it's not alive and it doesn't seem to have any connection to a wormhole,'' reported Philippe. ``It had a negative mass of about ten tons, which gives it an approximate density of a ton per cubic centimeter.''
``Certainly not normal material,'' said Randy. ``That's a much higher density than anything previously known.''
``It also has a very high electrical charge,'' said Philippe.
``As it would have to ...'' said Jim Merriweather.
``What do you mean by that?'' asked randy, puzzled.
``Since this cast keeps me out of a tightsuit, I've been spending my time talking with some physics experts on Earth about the Silverhair,'' said Jim.
Randy looked perturbed. ``I was trying to keep the Silverhair secret!'' he said sternly. ``Have you been blabbing about its existence to a bunch of academics? They can't keep secrets.''
``I've only talked to Reinhold employees,'' Jim assured him. ``And made them understand it was company-confidential,'' he added. ``Everyone said the same thing -- `Talk to Steve Wisneski.' So I did.''
Randy knew Steve Wisneski well. He was a bright and brash theoretical Ph.D. at the Reinhold Research Laboratories. ``What did Steve have to say?'' he asked.
`` `You're crazy. There's no such thing as negative matter.' ''
``That's Steve, all right,'' said Randy. ``Then what did he say?''
``After I gave him all the facts and showed him some video segments, he conceded that maybe negative matter could exist after all. What really convinced him was the description of my injury, where the cut edges looked like a thin sliver of material had been evaporated.''
``Why is that?'' asked Randy.
``Well, as Steve explains it, according to one theory, when negative matter touches normal matter, equal amounts vanish -- nothing is left, not even energy. The process is called nullification. It's like the annihilation of matter by antimatter, but in the nullification process, since the normal matter has positive rest mass and the negmatter has negative rest mass, the net rest mass is zero, so zero energy is released.. That's why we didn't notice any radiation when the Silverhair and I collided.''
``What else did Steve have to say?'' asked Randy.
``He told us to look for electric or magnetic fields around the Silverhair and the ball,'' said Jim. ``Negative-matter particles repel each other gravitationally, so they would normally tend to spread far apart from each other. But since the negative-matter particles in the Silverhair and the ball are jammed together at high density, there must be some other force involved that holds them together.''
Philippe spoke up. ``Hiroshi found a very strong positive electric field associated with both the ball and the Silverhair.. It's as if the material were all made of particles with the same charge.''
``Normally, particles of the same charge would repel each other and be pushed apart,'' said Jim. ``But according to Steve, when you attempt to repel a negative-matter particle, it responds in a perverse manner and comes toward you.''
``That explains one thing,'' said Randy. ``Siritha noticed some static-cling effects of space dust on her helmet. But there was nothing large--no lightning bolts.''
``Both the Silverhair and the ball rapidly develop a cloud of orbiting electrons around them,'' said Philippe. ``They must attract the negative electrons from the plasma in space while repelling the positive ions.. The negative electric charge of the electron cloud cancels out the positive electric charge of the negative matter, unless, of course, you get inside the orbiting cloud of electrons and very close to the surface of the negative matter. Hiroshi got some good measurements of the electric field around the ball by enclosing it in a plastic container, sweeping up all the electrons near the ball with a grounded metallic plate, then making measurements inside the container while all the interfering electrons were forced to stay outside the container. We then did some experiments on the ball.''
``What kind of experiments?'' asked Randy, looking intently at Philippe.
``Since the ball is charged,'' Philippe answered, ``it's easy to push it by charging up a metal plate placed near it. Of course, being negative matter, when you push it, it comes toward you..''
``That can get dangerous,'' said Jim, holding up his cast. ``If it gets too close, you get nullified.''
``In the experiment Hiroshi did,'' Philippe went on, ``he used a metal plate with a negative electric charge so it would attract the positive electric charge of the ball. The ball pulled away in the opposite direction, pulling the test apparatus, the power supply, and Hiroshi along with it. When Hiroshi saw what was happening, he quickly turned the field off. He then had to reverse the field and push on the ball for a while to bring it to a halt again.''
``It was just as Steve predicted,'' said Jim in awe. ``A true reactionless space drive.''
``A space drive?'' exclaimed Randy in amazement.
``That is correct,'' said Philippe, his voice deepening as his face turned deadly serious. ``When that ball of negative matter was pulling Hiroshi and his test apparatus along, there was nothing going in the opposite direction. There was no reaction mass and no energy source involved, but they moved nevertheless. That means a large enough negative-matter ball electrostatically coupled to a positive-matter spacecraft can propel the spacecraft at any acceleration the crew can stand for as long as you want.. Flight to the stars at near light speed is no longer a dream . . .''
00.08.30 / Garth Huber