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Fission Tackle

Fission Tackle

By Scriptorius


Fission Tackle

It was, Judge Embert Wimple thought, just typical. Here we were, with the second test match at Lord’s interestingly poised and rain falling like stair rods. Moreover, the weather forecaster had disclosed, with what to the judge seemed like boundless glee, that no let-up could be expected during the day. Casting his mind back over the years, Judge Wimple tried to recall a Lord’s test match unaffected by rain. He could not, though he accepted that that may have been attributable less to an accurate appraisal than to a defective memory. Anyway, it was most depressing.

To compound his honour’s misery, he was about to preside over what appeared to be yet another of those tiresome neighbourhood disputes. Where had all the fraudsters and thugs gone? And yet, these little clashes were grist to the mill.

Proceedings began at ten a.m. The case was Moorhouse versus Chadwick. The plaintiff, Edwin Moorhouse, alleged that he been occasioned bodily harm by the defendant, George Chadwick, who had counter-charged that Moorhouse had been culpable of reckless behaviour, likely to endanger the public. The plaintiff was represented by Jeremy Turnpenny, the defendant by Henry Bullivant. Both learned gentlemen were among the judge’s regulars, though neither expected to be identified correctly.

Having ensured that all present were clear as to charge and counter-charge, Judge Wimple addressed prosecuting counsel. “Perhaps you would favour us with your opening comments, Mr Terrapin.”

A close one. For a fleeting moment, Turnpenny was almost disorientated by the effort, which showed that the old boy was on the qui vive. “Thank you, Your Honour. At three-thirty in the afternoon of the tenth of October last, my client was working at his home, when he was attacked by Mr Chadwick. He was struck on the head by a blunt instrument, namely a walking stick, with a large knob at the end.”

“And it was this knob that inflicted the injury, was it?”

“Yes.” Turnpenny was not pleased by this seemingly irrelevant query, but the judge had his reason, having interjected so that he could inspect the plaintiff, whose head was swathed in a bandage.

“Dear me,” said his honour. “It must have been a fearsome assault. Your client appears to be still suffering.”

“Not from the same cause. Mr Moorhouse received his current wound while conducting an . . . ah . . . experiment which has no bearing on these proceedings.”

“Perhaps not,” said the judge. “However, he seems to have fallen upon evil times and my sympathy with his predicament prompts me to enquire as to the nature of the experiment.”

Turnpenny bowed. “As Your Honour pleases. Mr Moorhouse was working with ammonium nitrate fertiliser, diesel fuel and weedkiller. There was an explosion.”

“Your client has a particularly troublesome garden, has he?”

“Possibly, Your Honour. I did not think to ask.”

“Well, let us not go into that here. Now, we must establish whether there was any reason for this attack.” He turned to Bullivant. “Would you care to comment, Mr Bullstrode?”

Another near miss. Defending counsel was flattered. “May it please Your Honour, it is not disputed that my client assaulted Mr Moorhouse. However, he claims that he did so in the greater public interest, in that he prevented, or rather halted, a most dangerous activity.”

“I see,” said the judge. “And what was that activity?”

“The manufacture of an atomic bomb.”

“Great heavens!” the judge shrieked. “Whatever are we coming to? Please wait a moment. We must hear what the prosecution has to say to such an allegation. Mr Tympany?”

Turnpenny was well prepared. “The assertion is ill-founded. My client, Mr Moorhouse, is interested in technical matters and was simply making a replica device. There was not the slightest danger to the public. With Your Honour’s permission, I will offer a demonstration.”

“You are not about to transport us into the next world, I hope?”

“Certainly not.”

“Very well. Proceed.”

“Thank you. As it happens, I have had some training in the field of nuclear physics, so I think it may be said that I know whereof I speak.”

“Most gratifying. We are honoured to have among us a man who has mastered both atomic and legal matters. You are a rare bird, Mr Pennyworth.”

Turnpenny bowed. “Your Honour is very kind.”

“True. Please continue.”

Turnpenny moved to a nearby table, beside which was a large holdall, from which he extracted an assortment of items, placing them on the table and waving a hand at the array. “I do not wish to try Your Honour’s patience,” he said, “but I believe that this will prove worthwhile. However, I must make some preparatory remarks. In order to produce an atom bomb by the fission process, one needs a core, a housing, an initiator and a detonator. There are two kinds of device, the implosion type and the gun type. Mr Moorhouse had already tried to make one of the former, using a thirty-six pound iron ball, of the kind made for the guns of the old wooden battleships, plus a discarded globular vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, he had a mishap with that project.”

The judge broke in. “Your client seems to be accident-prone, does he not?”

“Such is the nature of experimental science, Your Honour.”

“Very well. Go on.”

“Thank you. Mr Moorhouse turned his attention to the gun type device, as represented here. We have no fissile material, but these items will serve our purpose.”

The judge noted that one of the objects was a globe of Dutch cheese, holed through the middle and that another was a large, lidded pan. He looked over his half-glasses. “I hope you haven’t changed your mind and decided to offer us a meal?” he said.

“No. The cheese is a substitute for a further iron ball, which my client was unable to obtain. If this were a genuine nuclear device, the only food connotation would be the Last Supper.” Chuckles all round. Turnpenny brandished pan and lid, showing that they were lined with polystyrene. “This is a simple domestic pressure cooker. The handle has been sawn off, the ball valve sealed and the steam escape drilled out and replaced with a threaded hole, matching the diameter of that in the cheese.” Next, he put one of two small metal discs in the bottom of the pan and placed over it the ball of cheese, hole uppermost, then he inserted the gasket into the lid, which he fitted to the base with a downward push and a sharp twist. He spread a hand. “This is the main part of the core and housing.”

“Yes, yes,” said the judge, totally immersed. “Proceed.”

Turnpenny selected a yard-long tube, one end open and threaded, the other closed by a cap, perforated by two tiny holes. Next, he picked up a cylinder of cheese, its diameter the same as those of the hole in the ball and the pan-lid. He produced a tube of glue, fixing the second disc to one end of the cylinder and squeezing more of the adhesive over the other end. Then he picked up a handful of something that looked like putty, which he stuffed into the tube, shaking it down to the end. He then took the cheese cylinder, pushing it down the tube – the glued-on disc facing the open end – and pressing it into the soft substance with a long-handled wooden spoon. Finally, he pressed the open end of the tube into the hole in the lid, twisted it several times, then turned to the judge. I am obliged to Your Honour for the forbearance,” he said. “This is the complete assembly, minus the detonator, which I felt unnecessary.

The judge nodded. “Most impressive,” he replied. “What you have there looks like a very large shillelagh. However, I don’t seem to be any wiser than before. And speaking of clubs, I hope I shall not need to cudgel the essence of this presentation from you.”

“No, Your Honour. I merely intended to demonstrate that Mr Moorhouse was using everyday materials. He would have preferred to adapt another vacuum cleaner for the housing, but did not have one. The synthetic lining merely ensures a precise fit. The tube is a length of pipe as used by plumbers, to which a metal screw-sleeve has been attached, corresponding to that fitted to the hole in the pan-lid. The small discs were made from jam-jar tops and the malleable element is simple modelling clay. In a real device, the pan and tube would be of high-grade steel, the two parts bolted together after the loading, while the clay would be plastic explosive. The discs would be of certain metals which react with one another to produce neutrons, and the cheese would be enriched uranium or plutonium.”

“I see,” said the judge. “How would the thing work?”

“Quite simply, Your Honour. Separately, the ball and cylinder – in a true atomic device, the fissionable parts – would be sub-critical, therefore not potentially explosive. It is only when they are forced together that they reach critical mass, susceptible of rapid chain reaction. The two discs, also when brought together, cause the required neutron bombardment of the core. The combination Mr Moorhouse had in mind was lithium and polonium.”

“Polonium,” the judge exclaimed. “That sounds like a sandwich filling.”

“Perhaps so, Your Honour. In that particular respect, my client was inspired by something he had read in a novel. However, that is not important. My understanding is that other pairings would suffice. Now, firstly, anyone can glean the general principle by consulting the reference section of a large public library. Secondly, a competent engineer would see that in terms of economy, this is an ideal configuration, since what is required is a container for the core, plus what amounts to a gun barrel. The idea is that a detonator, connected through the holes in the top of the tube, is used to set off the charge of plastic explosive, which is a small one. That in turn thrusts the cylinder along the tube, into the hole in the ball, producing criticality and slamming the two discs together, the last operation releasing the neutrons.”

Judge Wimple rubbed his hands. “Astounding,” he said. “You seem to be saying that if someone could get hold of the necessary materials, that person could actually produce an atom bomb.”

Turnpenny nodded. “Yes. However, we are speaking of substances which are uncommon, dangerous, or both.”

“Explain, please.”

“Certainly, Your Honour. Some of the components are rare and could not normally be acquired by the layman. For example, the core. Enriched uranium can be produced by either gaseous diffusion or centrifuging – though I believe there is work in progress on a third possibility, involving spectroscopy. Both proven processes require large and extremely costly plants, demanding huge inputs of energy. Such installations would be beyond the resources of most states, let alone individuals.”

The judge nodded. “That is reassuring,” he said. “But what about plutonium? I have heard that there may be any amount of it floating around the world.”

“Alas, that is not clear. Almost all plutonium is produced by nuclear reactors of a certain kind. Very little occurs in nature. Also, unlike uranium, which normally can be manipulated with relative impunity, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known and handling it requires considerable expertise.”

“I see,” said the judge. “Thank you, Mr Pennywell. Most succinct.” He turned to defending counsel Bullivant. “Now, Mr Bolivar, I think it is your turn.”

“Thank you, Your Honour. I cannot emulate the performance of my learned colleague. My client’s case rests upon his conclusion that he had reason to believe that the plaintiff might have destroyed the neighbourhood – and perhaps much of the city. It is true that matters got out of hand, largely as a result of Mr Moorhouse’s behaviour in threatening my client with hammer.”

“My word,” said the judge. “An aggressive gesture. Yet it seems that Mr Chadwick was equipped with a formidable walking stick for a visit to his neighbour, and he does not have one now. Can you explain that?”

“Yes, Your Honour. My client was impelled by the highest ideals and acted on the ‘have a go’ principle, which we often hear is lacking in our society. He was displaying civic courage in the face of a perceived menace and admits that he carried the walking stick because he feared that he might need to defend himself. We would emphasise that this was not the first time Mr Moorhouse had caused alarm to those around him. In fact, should Your Honour see fit to adjourn the proceedings, we could produce witnesses who would testify to that. We have not yet done so, only because we had in mind limiting the time and costs involved here.”

“A point well taken,” said the judge. He turned again to the prosecution. “Mr. Trumper, I think the ball is in your court.”

Turnpenny spread his hands. “Your Honour, I cannot deny that on account of his hobby, which is totally innocuous, Mr Moorhouse has occasionally attracted the opprobrium of his neighbours.”

“Ah,” said the judge, “I would like to know more. What else has Mr Moorhouse produced?”

“In addition to those we have mentioned, he has made a replica Colt forty-five revolver, a Gatling gun, two letter-bombs and a bazooka.”

“Good grief,” wailed the judge. “You are quite sure they are all harmless, are you?”

“Absolutely, Your Honour. My client has taken precautions to see that none of them is really functional.”

The judge nodded. “I understand. Still, Mr Moorhouse seems to have an addiction to these simulated instruments of mayhem. Does this continue and if so, what is he doing now?”

“As a result of the assault, he has been discouraged, but does retain some interest. He is currently working on a cruise missile.”

“Remarkable. I applaud his indefatigability, if not its application. Now, have you both finished and are you willing to accept my decision?”

Nobody had anything to add, so the judge decided that no recess was required. He shuffled his non-existent notes and pondered for almost two minutes before giving his verdict: “There is no need for a protracted summary here. I am minded to dismiss the counter-charge of reckless behaviour. The real issue is not Mr Moorhouse’s conduct, but the attack upon his person. After all, he had a hammer to hand, but there is no suggestion that he used it in his defence. Still, I am mindful of Mr Chadwick’s mental state at the time, and am satisfied that he did what he thought right in the wider interest. I feel bound to find in favour of the plaintiff, but in view of the defendant’s public-spirited attitude, I award a nominal fine of one pound. Now, although the proceedings are closed, I would be interested to learn something of plaintiff’s background. What does he do for a living, Mr Turnstile?”

Turnpenny muttered for a moment with his client before replying: “Your Honour, Mr Moorhouse is between jobs at present.”

“I see. What did he do before this interval?”

“He was a technician and was employed northwest of here, at the national nuclear reprocessing plant.”

* * *

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20 Jun, 2018
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