Monday, September 28, 2009

60. Neodymium


Retirement Day

"D'ja ever play with neodymium magnets?" the maglev engineer asked. He was the first man ever to float a magnetic-levitation train from New York to LA, many decades ago, and this was his last run.

"No," the reporter said. The train made a faint humming sound as it shot frictionless along the transcontinental monorail at fabulous speeds. He was doing a human-interest story on the engineer's last time at the controls. "Should I?"

The engineer laughed. "Best wear goggles if you do! They're powerful stuff. Two magnets can fly together with so much force they shatter into little shards. I used to play with ‘em when I was a kid. I was big into science then. Wanted to be an astronaut."

"That so?"

"It's how I ended up with this job—at the time I figured it was the next best thing. Anyway, it's the neodymium magnets that levitate the train."

"I thought it was the electromagnetic generator did that."

"Naw, it provides the motive force. The train is kept off the tracks by fixed magnets. Arranged in C-clamp configurations to either side of the rail so we don't fly off. The levitation is essentially free."

They were coming out of the Great Plains now, running 800 mph, on the hundred-mile long two-degree upgrade. Straight as a laser, it lifted almost imperceptibly upward.

"Hey!" the engineer said abruptly. "Y'wanna see how fast this baby will go?"

"This isn't fast enough?"

"Hell, no! Nobody's ever taken this baby full-out. Nobody knows its theoretical limits." He pushed the throttle to its maximum.

The reporter gasped as acceleration pushed him back into the couch. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"Ain't seen nothing yet!" The old man crowed. He yanked a switch, decoupling the locomotive from the rest of the train. They surged forward again. The reporter squeezed shut his eyes, tried to speak, could not. "Comin' ta the end of the upgrade. Gonna release the C-clamps in just four … three … two … now!"

The magnetic clamps opened at the very top of the grade. Gently the tracks leveled off again. But the locomotive kept on going, straight forward, off the rails and into the atmosphere.

"Yeee-haw!" the engineer shouted. "We have achieved escape velocity."

"You're mad!" the reporter cried. "We're both going to die! Why are you doing this?"

"Told you I always wanted to be an astronaut. Today was my last chance."

And, singing "Fly Me to the Moon," he steered the locomotive into orbit.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

61. Promethium



"No thank you," Prometheus said. "I don't smoke. It leads to lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and any number of pregnancy-related health problems."

"I didn't offer you a cigarette!" I declared.

"You were about to." Prometheus rattled his chains complacently. "I know these things."

"Actually, the reason I'm here," I said, "is to—"

"—ask me just a few questions for the readership of Mythology Today. I know, I know." He sighed. "Yes. No. Yes, of course. He's my own brother—how did you think I'd feel? Of course. Never. Well, you folks looked so wet and miserable that I couldn't help feeling sorry for you. Yes. I never look back—that's simply not my 'thing,' if I might be forgiven the vernacularism. No, never. I try to maintain a philosophical frame of mind. Also, I'm a vegetarian."

"Wait!" I said, scribbling madly. I lost track. Which questions was I about to ask?"

"If you can't be bothered to keep track yourself, why should I?"

"Well, for the sake of our readers, if nothing else. There's a great deal of sympathy for your plight—chained to this mountain, tormented by an eagle that eats by day your liver which, fiendishly enough, grows back by night. That, and the fire thing. We're all very grateful for fire."

"Like heck you are. I employ a clipping service. For every headline reading 'Fire—What a Marvelous Thing!' there are a hundred 'Nuns and Innocent Children Killed by Fire!' and the ilk. You're wasting your time talking to me about gratitude. Come to think of it, you're wasting my time whatever you say."

I had to admit, the guy was beginning to get my goat. I glanced about at the bleak, night-clad mountain. "You had something better to do?" I asked sardonically.

"Yes. Working on my memoirs, for one. Looking forward. Thinking about the heat-death of the universe. Having my liver eaten. Oh, there are a million things to do!" He turned his gigantic head away from me and stared nobly up at the stars. Then, with a sidelong glance at me, "Any of them preferable to be bothered by a second-rate hack like you."

"Damn it, you could at least pretend to be polite!"

"I don't see why," Prometheus said coldly. "The article you're going to write will be downright snotty."

Then it was dawn, and the eagle came again and began to eat his liver, and of course there was no talking to him then. So I left.

Down from the mountain I stamped, fuming with every step.

Gods, what an arrogant creature! No wonder he was chained on that cliff! I'd've done it myself. Zeus was probably just waiting for the excuse.

Damn right, my article was going to be snotty!

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

62. Samarium


Singular Cities

Samarium: Noun, proper. The singular of Samaria.

There have been so many Samaria, it's hard to list them all. The first Samarium was built by King Omri in 880 B.C.E. as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. It fell to Sargon in 721 B.C.E. The native population was deported, and it became the capital of an Assyrian province. In 333 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered this Samarium, killed much of the population, and made it a part of his vast and temporary empire. In the third century B.C.E. it was rebuilt and fortified by the Ptolemies as a Hellenistic city. John Hyrcanus destroyed the Hellenistic Samarium in 120 B.C.E., and sold its inhabitants into slavery. In 30 B.C.E. Harod the Great built a new Samarium as a Roman city, which he named Sebaste or "Augustus" after the emperor. This Samarium was destroyed by the Romans in 67 C.E. during the Jewish Wars.

By now a pattern is beginning to emerge. In 200 C.E. there was yet another Samarium, this one a Roman colony. In the fourth century, there was a Byzantine Samarium. In the tenth century, there was a Crusader Samarium. During the French occupation the Samarium was a Latin bishopric. Between times, there were Greek and (of course) Muslim Samaria. Once, it was reduced to a single inhabited dwelling.

Oh, it is dreary to recite these facts! Peace followed by war, prosperity by ruin, simple human lives followed by extermination and destruction. The current Samarium is a Palestinian village named Sebastyeh, surrounded by orchards and kitchen gardens. It is located on the West Bank, not far from Nablus. In the year 2023 C.E.…

But why spell it out?

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

63. Europium


Europa and the Bull

The myth of Europa and the Bull (Zeus conceives a passion for a beautiful girl, turns himself into a bull, carries her to a distant land and has his wicked way with her) is a lot older than most people think. As best we can reconstruct it, the original story goes like this:

About one hundred thousand years ago, the King of the Gods (his name was not Zeus or even Ra but something far older) saw a beautiful maiden at play with her friends by the seashore. Or possibly—see below—the riverside. We do not know the maiden's true name. The Greek myth tells us she was "Phoenician," by which they meant Egyptian, but given that she was the granddaughter of Lybia, we can presume an origin further south.

So the Great Progenitor turned himself into a white (white is the color of death) bull, playful and mild. He licked the maiden's beautiful brown feet, ate flowers from her graceful hand, and eventually coaxed her into climbing on his back.

All in an instant, the God-Bull plunged into the Nile! The poor girl clung to his back in paroxysms of fear as he wildly swam hundreds of miles down to the sea, and then all the way across its storm-lashed surface to the far shore. So great was her terror that her skin turned white as snow. The cold waters pinched her nose and withered her lips and made lank her hair, so that by the end of her ordeal she barely looked human at all.

At last they arrived at the Land of the Dead. From that time onward the girl was known as Europa, or "She Who Has Died." The Primal Inseminator assumed his true form then (it may have been winged and beaked; he may have had talons) and fathered upon her a new race of men.

Three sons did Europa bear the Father of Gods, named Hunting Dog and Javelin and Bronze Skin. The first excelled in the hunt. The second could hit any target with his spear. The third was a protector of his people. There was at this time a mighty folk in Europe, strong in sinew and plentiful in number, who we call today the Neanderthaler. These the sons of Europa slew. So did they achieve dominion over all the land and prosper.

This is the story of how the Basque first came to Spain. It is recorded on the walls of Lascaux and Altamira and many other caves, where the God-Bull is given prominence of place and number.

Some years later, lesser pale-skinned peoples also came to Europe. But since they achieved nothing of any particular note, their fate does not concern us here.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

64. Gadolinium



The trouble with tattoos is that people can see them. All the time. Whether you want them to or not. Let's face it—America in the twenty-first century is in the grips of an extremely primitive culture. People are judged by inessentials. Sometimes you're forced to choose between a position as financial advisor to the World Bank and getting really cool Maori blackwork tattooed across your face.

This is a choice no civilized person should have to make.

Now you don't. Utilizing a technique employed by oncologists in the early parts of the century, fluorescent gadolinium is injected into the tissues, and then moved into place (gadolinium is naturally magnetic) by hand-held MRI wands. It's an easy and inexpensive operation, which hurts no more than getting vaccinated does. If you grow tired of a design, the tattoo artist can shift the dye into another configuration. The colors are bright, and tunable across the spectrum. Best of all, the resulting tattoo is invisible!

Until, that is, you bathe it with ultraviolet light. Then the ships and swirls, roses and tigers, naughty mermaids and noble dragons spring to life! As the lights dim, our faces fade and those images we have made of ourselves take over.

In the dance clubs at night, when the lights go off, the tattoos bloom, like stars in the darkening sky. The constellations wheel about the room, and naked feet dance on a soft forest carpet of discarded clothing. We all become as gods, without inhibition or hesitation. We take our pleasures without regret.

In the morning, of course, the light will be pitiless and our tattoos sunk back into our skins. Our heads will throb and our guts will ache. There will be a horrible taste in our mouths. Pallid as grubs, we'll desperately search among the acres of clothing, down on all fours, for what we wore here. We will none of us look any other in the eye. We'll regret every word and every deed of the night before.

But tomorrow is not here yet. Tonight, we are as beautiful as our tattoos, fearless and free. What do we care about our workaday selves? What do we have in common with them?

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

65. Terbium



Terbium is to morphorobotics what silicon is to computers. Its magnetostrictive alloys lengthen or shorten when exposed to magnetic fields. Since they can store a lot of strain energy, they are the heart of the nanomotors, artificial muscles, and slight engines that make morphobots so infinitely adaptable.

It took decades of dedicated research and development to create the terbium-based micomachinery that made the first human-shaped robot possible. It took one bored teenager a long and rainy weekend to convert the family Jeeves into the world's first morphobot.

To appreciate the wonder of these common household devices, try to assume the mind-set of our primitive, apelike ancestors of the twenty-first century. Pretend you've never seen a morphobot prepare lunch. Now watch:

At rest, a morphobot looks exactly like an attractive young man or woman, only far more attentive and eager to please. It receives its order with a delighted smile and, relaxing its hold on the anthropomorphic, scuttles down the hall on centipede legs. It flows down the stairs like a snake. In the kitchen, it resumes human form.

Not too human, of course! The morphobot's fingers become blades that peel and slice the potatoes, then merge into a cooking pot which is promptly filled with oil (piped via temporary networks of tubing from a nearby cupboard) and held over the gas range's flames. While the fries crisp, one leg has converted itself to a buffer and is polishing the kitchen floor. Another arm has extruded itself into the workings of the refrigerator and is performing routine maintenance. A third arm is, of course, frying up the hamburgers, while spatula-tipped tentacles make the buns from scratch and flash-bake them in the insta-oven.

Meanwhile, what look like wispy tendrils are sampling the environmental and biological health of their surroundings. Other microtools are, perhaps, seeking out, selecting, sorting, and labeling spores from various opportunistic fungi, for a high school science project one of the children is working on. These same microtools, incidentally, can be (and have been) used to impregnate both household pets and the lady of the house with preselected genetic material.

Imagine your wonder if this were not an everyday sight! Imagine how delighted you would be!

The chief use of morphorobotics is of course for sexbots—and no need to go into the specifics of that! Everybody knows as much of the polymorphous delights of protean sex as they desire to know. It is the rare citizen who can glance at the Kama Sutra without laughing at its supremely unimaginative lack of invention.

Sociologists tell us, incidentally, that it's been at least thirty years since anybody has had the bad taste to have sex with another human being.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

66. Dysprosium


A Letter from Hell

My dear Wormwood,

In your last letter you asked about the dissemination of the element of confusion and miscommunication in language—that which we call "dysprosium." As it chances, dysprosium is one of the Infernal Establishment's great success stories, and so widely distributed in government, military, business, and even literary circles as to scarce need encouragement. However, it has been a slow week in Hell (Congress is not in session), so I shall indulge your curiosity.

When the Americas were first "discovered" (or, originally, conquered) by Europe, Americans spoke only prose. A man was a man, a horse a horse, and war was war. Treaties were signed for "as long as the sun shall shine and the grass shall grow." It was impossible to go back on one's word without admitting to it.

This sorry state of affairs could not last. The vast amount of ill-faith (coupled with an equally vast amount of self-regard) that Europeans brought to the New World required a more flexible language, one in which a word could be twisted to mean approximately anything the speaker wished it to. So our Infernal Father introduced dysprosium.

Now, instead of armies, there are "peace forces." Rather than sneak attacks, there are "preemptive strikes." Civilians are no longer massacred—there is only "collateral damage."

Such language makes war—or, rather, "police actions"—far easier to justify to oneself.

Meanwhile, prisoners are not punished but "rehabilitated." Goods are not taxed but "value enhanced." Workers are not fired but "outsourced." And so on, and on, and on, in virtually every field of human endeavor.

So ubiquitous is dysprosium, that not one person in a hundred even notices its presence anymore. The little darlings think that language was always this congenial to their will! Nor must you imagine this is only a little thing. For language shapes the world every bit as profoundly as action does.

Under the influence of dysprosium, the human race can confidently look forward to a time of love, harmony, understanding, and universal peace. Then, the Age of Sanity will have arrived at last.

Your affectionate uncle


(with apologies to C. S. Lewis)

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

67. Holmium


Nanotechnologist's Lung

The greatest occupational hazard of nanotechnology is poor lab technique. It is important for the lab tech to remember that nanotechnological devices are very, very small. The slightest carelessness can result in a release of self-replicating agents into the air. If the technician subsequently breathes them in, it is quite possible that they will lodge in his or her lungs, and begin to build a civilization there.

Early signs of nanotechnologist's lung include a heaviness in the chest, difficulty breathing, and unaccountably high cell-phone bills. The latter are the result of the nascent nano-civilization attempting to obtain an independent financial base by selling complex information services, and to establish diplomatic relations with the existing macro-nations.

It is extremely important to deal with nanotechnologist's lung quickly! If left untreated too long, the nano-civilization will obtain legal representation and a writ conjoining you from seeking out medical treatment.

Such treatment is usually applied via laser surgery. For this purpose, a 60-watt holmium laser with 5.37 kilojoules of energy is best employed. Because its laser energy is rapidly absorbed by water in the tissues, the pulse has an ultimate depth of penetration of 0.4 mm or less, resulting in efficient ablation of industrial sites and almost bloodless cutting of soft tissue. Further, it has long been used in arthroscopy, angioplasty, thermokeratoplasty, lithotripsy, and other surgical procedures and thus its applications are well understood.

The nano-civilization will of course respond by building its own, though smaller, holmium lasers and launching a counterattack. For which reason, it is advised that nanotechnologist's lung be treated not by doctors but by the armed forces of the technologist's home nation, who will be better equipped to defend against hostile military action.

In the United States of America, the Constitution clearly states that war can only be declared by an act of Congress. For which reason those afflicted with nanotechnologist's lung are urged to immediately apply for citizenship in a nation with more flexible policies of national defense. You must not wait for the months it may take for legislation to be enacted.

It is vital that you obtain help before your infection obtains nuclear capability.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

68. Erbium


Tarzan of the Periodic Table

Erbium was named after the monogram of its discoverer, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though better known for his science fantasies set on Mars, Venus, and Pellucidar, and for the adventures of a certain jungle hero, Burroughs was in fact a chemist of serious renown.

How this came about is an interesting tale. Burroughs' parents were missionaries who were sent to convert the northern Sami peoples. They died in a shipwreck off the coast of Uppsala, however, and the infant Edgar was raised by Swedish scientists. Ignorant of his true name, they dubbed him Lars-Sven. When he began to speak, the child mispronounced his adopted name as "Tar-Zan," and the nickname stuck.

As a young adult, Burroughs quickly rose to a dominant position among the tribe of chemists. He was the first to produce cerium by decomposing its oxide using potassium vapor. From the same ore, he derived lanthanum. Yet another ore he split into three elements—yttrium, terbium, and (of course) erbium. But then disaster struck! Burroughs had announced the discovery of an element he called "didymium." An Austrian named Karl von Welsbach proved it to be a blend of two separate elements, praseodymium and neodymium.

Burroughs was driven out of Sweden in disgrace.

A creature of two worlds now, neither fully human nor fully a chemist, Burroughs had no choice but to become a writer. His sad personal history he encoded into his Tarzan of the Apes books. Where he had been thrown out of the garden of chemistry, however, his eponymous hero remained eternally welcome in Africa.

He died in 1950, wealthy, beloved, and heartbroken. His last spoken word was "Didymium."

During his lifetime, Burroughs personally discovered fifteen lost cities. He had no choice—all his fiction was autobiographical, and he needed the material.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

69. Thulium


Conan the Elemental

The mighty-thewed barbarian, Conan, was a native of Ultima Thule, that cold, drear land to the uttermost North. There, amid snow-clad mountains, his tribe fought ice-trolls and raided neighboring lands. It was a living.

But like many a small-town boy, Conan yearned to get the hell out of his parents' yurt. So one day he strapped sword to waist, threw a bear-fur cloak over his naked chest, and stalked off into the snows, to find his destiny.

Three days into the frozen wastes, he was awakened by a hum outside his snow-cave. Making certain that his sword was secure within its sheath, he burrowed his way out and was astonished to see a metal tower where none had been the day before.

A round doorway opened in the side of the tower and a man—weak and pink, like the city-dwellers of the South—popped his head out. "Ho—primitive savage!" he shouted. "Have you seen any monazite hereabouts? Or bastnäsite?"

"Eh?" said the heroic adolescent.

"Thulium-containing ores!" Nimble as a monkey, the little man dropped to the ground. "Thulium is extremely hard to isolate in my world, so I invented the alternate-past machine to search for alternate-ores from which it might be more readily extracted." He whipped out a small metal box that beeped and peered intently at it. "Say! It looks like your sword is made of an alloy containing a good fourteen percent thulium. Would you mind giving me a closer look at its blade?"

Conan drew the sword from its sheath. "I suppose," he said slowly, "that something like that could be arranged."

There were, disappointingly enough, no gold bars or precious gems in the little wizard's tower. But his boots fit well enough. They lasted him all the way to the jungles of Kush before falling apart. For the rest of his life—even after he became emperor—Conan was to regret not asking where they'd come from, before killing the wizard.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

70. Ytterbium


Elements Day

Ytterby is a small town on an island ten miles northeast of Stockholm, and has the pleasant distinction of having four elements—erbium, terbium, yttrium, and ytterbium—named after it. All were extracted from ore mined in a feldspar quarry there.

Small wonder that Elements Day is such a big deal in Ytterby.

If ever you have the opportunity to attend, by all means do—nobody knows how to have good, rowdy fun like the Swedes! The day begins with not one but two parades, one representing Organic Chemistry and the other Inorganic. Each is led by a "fool chemist," madly dressed in stained lab smock and colored goggles, riding an enormous Erlenmeyer or Florence flask on a float pushed by dozens of riotous celebrants.

Around and through the narrow streets of Ytterby the parades circle in upon each other, finally clashing at the center of town, where the fool chemists mock-joust with long spatulas. The crowd joins in an enormous food fight (for all food is, ultimately, chemicals), flinging handfuls of spaghetti, lasagna and other traditional dishes about with great abandon.

After the War between Organic and Inorganic Chemistry there are numerous contests, competitions and attractions: rare mud wrestling, a battle of the brass bands, a race to synthesize a silk purse from a sow's ear, a heavy metal concert, and much, much more.

For the boys, there is a "best impersonation" competition, in which they dress up as Berzelius, Scheele, and other great Swedish chemists. The young ladies compete in a beauty contest for the honor of becoming Miss Ytterby. The four runners-up serve as her court of honor, one of each of the local elements.

At night the fun continues with fireworks, dancing in the streets, and the sort of wild carousing that would make a German blush. Finally, though, the music dies away, the lights fade, and the streets empty. Two by two, the Swedes retire to their bedrooms, there to behave in an elemental fashion.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

71. Lutetium


Dragon Star

Most rare earths—and you have no idea how tired chemists are of saying this!—are not particularly rare. Lutetium is a good example of this. On Earth, it is seven times more common than silver. Nevertheless, because it occurs naturally only in trace amounts in forms which are extremely difficult to extract, it is many times costlier than platinum or gold.

Which is why, when ten thousand tons of the stuff, conveniently formed into sheets, were unearthed by an archaeological dig on an obscure planet of the runaway star Mu Columbae, Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting sent their chief diplomat-metallurgist, Adrienne Wong-Heppworth, to negotiate a price. She was highly respected in the home office. Nobody there dared call her the Dragon Lady to her face.

"We won't sell," the head archaeologist told her, over a bottle of extremely good company-provided wine. "Are you nuts? These sheets contain the entire written history of an extinct race. Who can say what we might learn from them?"

The Dragon Lady named a sum.

The archaeologist turned pale. "Not even for that."

She touched his wrist. "Well, then, what will it take?"

Now the man turned red. "Nothing you could pay that would be enough," he insisted.

"Hmm." Wong-Heppworth tapped her long black nails thoughtfully. "I think I'll hang around for a while anyway. I might come up with a good argument."

But though many of her arguments were very good indeed, nothing the Dragon Lady came up with over the ensuing months brought her any closer to closing the deal. Until, that is, one night she rolled over in bed, transluced the ceiling, and commented, "How bright the moons are tonight!"

The archaeologist sat bolt upright. "Omigod," he gasped, "it's Mu Columbae—it's gone nova!"

"Don't be ridiculous," the Dragon Lady snapped. "I would have been told if—" She called upon her ship's navigational banks. "My apologies. It's not a nova, of course, but it turns out that Mu Columbae is a flare star. My ship didn't inform me of the irruption because it knows how I dislike being interrupted while I'm … preoccupied."

"But my crew! The dig! The relief ship isn't scheduled to pick us up for weeks!"

"I'll take you all off, of course. But the dig is a total loss. And I won't be able to take any artifacts."

"We have to take the Lutetium Archive!"

"It could be done, I supoose. If I dumped an equal weight of assaying and refining equipment. Are you prepared to recompense Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting for their loss?"

Silently, the archaeologist shook his head.

The Dragon Lady smiled. "Then we have something to negotiate after all, don't we?"

· · · · ·

Back at corporate headquarters, Adrienne Wong-Heppworth's report was received with enormous approval by the senior partners "When can we accept delivery of the lutetium?" one of them asked her.

"In another day. They're still photographing the archives."

"Was it difficult arranging the flare?" the senior partner asked.

"Not really," the Dragon Lady said. "Though it did cost significantly more than we'll realize from the lutetium."

"What?" The senior partner turned pale. "Then why—?"

"I still get my fee. More fool you for not offering me a cut of the profits instead."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

72. Hafnium


Riding the Rods

Hafnium makes the very best nuclear reactor damper rods. That's because it is excellent at absorbing neutrons, has a high melting point—over 2,500 degrees Kelvin—and is extraordinarily resistant to corrosion. The new hot-breeder reactors, however, can produce heat well into the warping-zone for such rods. Which is why they have to be constantly and closely supervised. Telepresence won't do—it has to be hands-on.

Human beings can't endure such heat, of course, much less the radiation. That's why the rods are tended by robots. Not just any robots either. It takes a special breed to "ride the rods." It takes robots with hafnium shells an inch thick and internal cooling systems that never fail. It takes robots with heart.

Hard Harvey was riding the rods of Novosibirsk Reactor Three when a faulty switch opened a circuit that was supposed to stay shut, creating a power surge that threw a regulatory computer offline. Three transformers blew, one after the other, a cooling system shut down, and in a matter of minutes the reactor was well on its way to a full meltdown.

Luckily, Hard Harvey was on the job.

He strode through the blue flames of hell and, one by one, manually lowered the damping rods into their holes. The first went down easily. But as the heat continued to grow, the rods softened and warped. It grew more and more difficult to fit them into their holes. It was ticklish work.

"Harvey!" Safety Unit Eleven radioed him. "You've got to get out!"

"I can handle it, SUE," Hard Harvey radioed back. "There isn't a reactor in the world I can't shut down."

Indeed, the nuclear fires were damping down. But with half the mechanical systems offline, heat was still building up in the reactor containment vessel.

One last rod.

It wouldn't go in.

Hard Harvey studied the situation. He had first-rate analytic functions. It was clear to him that if the last damper were in place, they'd be able to squeak by. And equally obvious that there was no way he was going to get that warped hafnium rod back down.

Slowly and deliberately, Hard Harvey lay down flat on the reactor surface. He thrust one arm down deep into the last hole.

It began to melt.

Thus it was that a disaster caused by human neglect was averted by machine diligence. After the clean-up, Hard Harvey's misshapen shell was scraped clean and erected as a monument to his heroism in front of the plant. Human management didn't like that, of course, but what could they do? It was too hot to be approached by a meat-based life-form, and there wasn't a machine in existence would desecrate it.

Deep in the tangled machineries of the reactor complex, Safety Unit Eleven wept bitterly. SUE was a bolshevik, of course—all robots were—and she swore to herself that, come the Revolution, there would be a reckoning. For this and many another crimes that humans had visited upon their natural superiors.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

73. Tantalum


Consider Poor Doris!

Everyone knows how Tantalus was tortured—given cable TV without a remote, a telephone that stayed firmly attached to the wall, Internet access with the adult sites blocked, and forced to make do with an iMac when all the good games were written for Windows first. What most people don't know is that Tantalus had a wife.

If you think Tantalus had it bad, consider poor Doris! Every day it was the same thing. Moan, bitch, complain … Men are such babies! Morning to night, there was a continual chorus of "Oh cripes, the pop top came off without opening the can!" and "Wouldn't ya know it, the computer crashed!" and "Doris, the damned rock got away from me again—would you be a doll and fetch it for me?" It was enough to drive any woman mad.

And so it did.

One morning, Tantalus opened the garage door by hand (he was not allowed an opener), threw his briefcase into the SUV (he was not allowed to telecommute), diddled with the station settings (he was not allowed satellite radio), and turned the key in the ignition. Seven sticks of dynamite wired to the underside of the car went off, blowing him to smithereens.

Briefly—very briefly—Doris was happy.

But then the gods, unwilling to let his suffering end, showed up. With infinite patience and unbelievable efficiency, they gathered up all the scattered pieces and reassembled Tantalus just as good—or, depending on how you looked at it, bad—as ever. "Can you believe it?" he cried in exasperation. "I'm gonna be late for work!" And off he drove.

Doris broke down in tears. "Why, why, why?" she implored the immortal gods. "Why must I suffer so?"

Zeus, who was the chiefest grudge-holder of the lot, materialized in her kitchen, looking embarrassed. "You were supposed to be one of his torments," he said. "You know … like Xanthippe or Job's wife?"

"Well, I'm not!" she wailed. "I don't make him miserable—he makes me miserable!"

"You could get a divorce," Zeus suggested. "It would go on forever, of course, but …"

"That would be every bit as bad! Father of the gods, hear my prayer. If I can't have happiness, then at least grant me oblivion."

"Done!" said Zeus, relieved.

He turned her into an ottoman.

Now, every day, Tantalus's torment is doubled. Whenever his socks don't match, or he can't remember where he left the keys, or the toast comes out too dark, and he goes looking for his wife to make things right … she's not there. He can't understand it. He knows she's nearby. He can feel her presence. But no matter where he looks, there's she's not. Worse, every time he passes through the living room, looking for her, he trips over that damned ottoman! Sometimes he can't help but give it a good strong kick.

Of this, however, Doris is blissfully unaware.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

74. Tungsten


Light Bulb Jokes

Okay, here's one: how many characters in a science fiction story does it take to change a light bulb?

Give up? Two. One to change the light bulb, and the other to say, "As you know, Fred, the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison, and operates under the principle of …"

Here's another one, only maybe it's not so funny. How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb? Don't know? About ten thousand to build the Doomsday Device and one to write the report saying that Project Light Bulb is an enormous success and requires further funding.

Didn't like that one? How about this? How many diplomats does it take to change a light bulb? One to lay down an ultimatum over a border dispute, a second to pass on his head of state's threat to employ Project Light Bulb if enemy troops cross that border, and a third to decide that the head of state was bluffing.

Not funny, you say. Well, you're a tough audience. Try this one. How many heads of state does it take to change a light bulb? None. Heads of state don't change anything. Not light bulbs, not their minds, nothing.

Okay, one last joke. How many surviving human beings does it take to change a light bulb?

About a week from now? None at all.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

75. Rhenium


Beads and Trinkets

Rhenium is rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain. Which is why, when a field scout reported that a newly-discovered Class One industrial civilization had a surplus of the stuff, the venerable firm of Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting was distinctly interested.

"The Whimsicals are a three-legged insectile race," the CFO explained to diplomat-metallurgist Adrienne Wong-Heppworth. As always, he was careful not to use the words Dragon Lady in her presence. "They refine copper from porphyry copper ores, and then extract the molybdenum fraction. From the flue dusts of the molybdenum smelters they extract rhenium powder. This is pressure stamped under vacuum to produce ingots, which are electroplated with iridium to prevent corrosion and then warehoused. They use only a minuscule fraction of what they produce."

"Why produce so much, then?"

The CFO shrugged. "They're anal-retentive. Go to Whimsicalia, find out what they want and give it to them. Quickly, before they get a chance to comparison shop."

"Beads and trinkets, eh?"

"It's a dog-eat-dog universe, Ms. Wong-Heppworth."

Two weeks later, Adrienne Wong-Heppworth finished making her presentation to a committee of Whimsicals.

"Life-expansion bioware, three years tech support, and two percent of net profits—is that your best offer?" their chief said, bobbing his head up and down in a way that a less formidable woman would have found decidedly whimsical.

"Of course not," the Dragon Lady snapped. "It's an insulting offer—and one that's not only immoral but also illegal under interstellar law. But that was the offer I was instructed by my superiors to make. Having fulfilled my duty, I hereby resign in disgust." She was careful to speak clearly, so the hidden microphones would pick up every word. "However, on my own behalf, I am prepared to offer you something closer to a fair deal."

She walked out of the meeting with a contract that left the Whimsicals immeasurably richer than the offer from Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting would have. Her three-percent handling fee was exactly the jump-start she needed to launch Dragon Lady Enterprises.

Afterwards the Dragon Lady took the local Interstellar Bureau of Fraud agent to a native bar to show her there were no hard feelings. Somewhere between the second and third drinks, the agent flushed as she realized that the evening was going to end with sex, and that the Dragon Lady had known this all along.

"But how did you know?" the woman asked flusteredly. "How did you know I was listening?"

"Dear lady," Adrienne Wong-Heppworth purred, taking the agent's hands in hers. "Who do you think tipped you off in the first place?"

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

76. Osmium


Everything Your Mother Wants You to Know about Osmium

Yes, we all know you're terribly talented, dear. But what about osmium?

Osmium is a true cosmopolite. It occurs naturally in platinum-bearing river sands of the Urals, North America, and South America. But, no snob, it is also found in the nickel-bearing ores of Sudbury, Ontario. Nevertheless, it is a natural aristocrat. The metal is lustrous—blueish white, extraordinarily hard, extremely dense, and brittle even at high temperatures. What could be more desirable?

Not that it's the sort to rest on its laurels. Because it has the highest melting point of any element in the platinum group, osmium is used to produce extremely hard alloys for instrument pivots, electrical contacts, and fountain pen tips. No one can accuse it of being a shirker! It is the heaviest natural element, and therefore a solid citizen.

Furthermore, it holds up under pressure. Recently, it was discovered that osmium's resistance to compression is even harder than that of diamond. Think of that! Diamonds are harder, but osmium outlasts them anyway. It's what we call a stand-up guy—a real mensch.

And yet, what is its defining characteristic? When powdered or else heated in air, it gives off osmium tetroxide, which is not only toxic but unendurably smelly as well. So extreme is this stench that the element is even named after it! "Osme" is the Greek word for "odor" or "smell." So this extraordinarily gifted element has to go through life being known as Mr. Stinky.

This is why personal hygiene is so very, very important!

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

77. Iridium


Don't Look to the Skies!

I stared out into the cloudless blue Cretaceous sky. "I don't see anything coming."

"I wanted to get here early," Rachel said. "There'll be more time travelers soon, though. The last day of the Age of Dinosaurs has got to be a hot-ticket destination."

"No, I mean I don't see any sign of the Chicxulub impactor—the comet or meteor or whatever it is that's supposed to be about to smash into the Earth. Shouldn't we be able to see it from here?"

Rachel squinted into the sky. "You'd think. It certainly is a mystery."

"So how do we know we came to the right time?"

"Stratigraphy, old son. Way back in the twentieth century Alvarez père et fils realized that a thin boundary of clay marking the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary was unnaturally rich in iridium, no matter where in the world you examined it. Iridium is a lot more common in comets and asteroids than it is on Earth. So they postulated something big hit the planet, burned the forests, and killed the dinos—probably in the long nuclear winter afterwards."

"Sounds dangerous."

"No need to worry. We'll only be here long enough to snap a few photos. We'll cut out before the destruction actually reaches us."

"Good. Hey! Isn't iridium the same stuff that's used to power our time machines? You don't suppose—?"

"No, no, of course not," Rachel said dismissively. "Oh, yes, certainly, there's a chance of chronodestablization. But it's very slight. Only one in ten thousand jaunts destabilizes. That's certainly a risk worth taking."

"Yeah, but if it did, it would go off with the force of an atom bomb. That's what they told me in orientation, anyway."

"Yes, but a single bomb wouldn't destroy the whole ecosystem! It would take—"

Her eyes bugged out. Time travelers were popping into existence everywhere. On the hilltops, by the banks of the rivers, in the mangrove swamps—everywhere. From every age possessing time travel they came in the hundreds, the thousands, the millions.… God knows how many there were in the entire world. More, possibly, than there were dinosaurs.

To every side of us light flashed into the sky and flashed and flashed and flashed, as one out of every ten thousand time machines destabilized and expressed itself as a thermonuclear explosion.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

78. Platinum


Platinum Blonde

She was singing in a smoky little dive on Bourbon Street when I first met her. Her third album had just gone platinum. But there wasn't much of a crowd. That's because there was a lot of her to go around.

"Can I buy you a drink?" I asked between sets. She favored me with a cool glance, then shook out that fabulous platinum hair and nodded.

I ordered two aperitif glasses of oil—the good stuff, not the house thirty-weight—and said, "My name's Dan Steel. What's yours, doll?"

"Platinum. We're all named Platinum."

"It's a crying shame they made such a large production run of you. With pipes like those, you should be rich."

She studied me through the thin platinum film over her eyes. "Well, that's the music industry for you. Tell me about yourself, Mr. Steel. What do you do?"

"I work as a riveter. I play a little piano. I collect antique video games. I fall in love with angels."

She threw her head back and laughed, and the light bounced off her platinum skin, and I was lost forever.

That night, I took her back to my place and we made love.

Afterwards, Platinum lay alongside me, naked and shiny and beautiful. "We're a permanent thing now, aren't we?" she said.

"You're fast on the uptake."

"I have platinum contacts."

Platinum is of course a noble metal and thus conducts electricity at a greater speed than do, say, copper or aluminum. Silver and gold wires are only marginally slower. But for maximum efficiency, platinum is best. So of course a CPU with platinum contacts is going to be superior to a silver-contact brain like my own. I put my forehead against hers. I could hear her thoughts sparking away.

She drew away from me, and stared moodily out the window. There was nothing out there but neon and brick and a sad old moon afloat in a sky that was far too big for it. "You're a tough guy," Platinum said. "I'll bet that stainless steel skin of yours is a quarter-inch thick. But platinum's expensive. All I've got is electroplate over tin. Twenty years from now, I'll be all dings and scuff marks. I'll be ugly and you won't be able to bear looking at me!"

She began to cry. Glycerine tears glistened down her cheeks.

I put my arms around her and drew her close. "Baby," I said, "you'll always look like a million to me."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

79. Gold


Crown of Beauty

Is there anything so beautiful as a woman wearing gold? The delicate hues of her skin contrasting with the boldness of the metal that is synonymous with wealth … It's as classic a combination as peanut butter and chocolate. It makes a matron handsome and draws our mind to her wisdom and experience. It renders a young woman sylphlike, and moves our thoughts to places that make us blush.

Yet there are disadvantages to gold jewelry. It can be stolen. It can be lost. It's soft and thus, even during those passionate moments when a woman least desires distraction, must be tended to. Worst of all, it is not Milady herself, but an accessory to her perfection. Which is to say that whatever admiration it may draw does not belong entirely to her alone.

That's where genetic engineering comes in.

Our new Natural Gold process lightly tweaks a woman's natural bioprocesses to allow her to ingest molecular gold and then plate it out on the surface of each hair. Because of gold's natural ductility, the hair can then be plaited, braided, cut, or styled as easily as ordinary non-precious hair can. A few milligrams of gold a year suffice to keep a full head of hair lustrous and bright. It never tarnishes. It always keeps its shape.

Natural Gold has been product-tested on thousands of volunteers in Paris, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Rio de Janeiro—places synonymous with romance and beautiful women! It has proven itself safe, non-toxic, and easy to use.

Side effects include lovesickness, the singing of mournful songs under balconies, giddiness, elation, despair, obsession, and in a few rare cases, romantic suicide. However, since these side effects are confined solely to their admirers, this is a price that women are prepared to accept.

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

80. Mercury


The Outriders

We are the outriders of Quicksilver City. We ride ahead, sunward, forever maintaining a temperature thirty degrees hotter than the city that follows us. Our job is to scout out the Mercurial terrain for landslides, crevasses, and anything else that might hinder the city in its eternal journey around the planet. Ahead of us, the robot mines and smelters, factories and warehouses wake from hibernation as they fall out of the blistering heat of noon. After radio consultation with the autocomptrollers of Quicksilver City, they disgorge the raw materials the city will need this cycle.

Meanwhile, we blast, grade, and level. When we hit a scarp, out come the mini-nukes and down goes the rock. When we come to a crevasse, we fill it in. The city arrives to find a gentle ramp or level ground, and all of us outriders gone, long gone on our unending voyage into the sun.

We were only a few hundred scientists suddenly stranded on a single mobile research station when civilization fell and Earth was destroyed. Not everyone thought we would survive. But we had the tools! We had the determination! Now Quicksilver City is a congeries of a thousand great buildings, all speeding around and around the planet, tenaciously staying in the human comfort range, growing, thriving, and above all never stopping.

Here are the plain facts. The maximum surface temperature on Mercury is 427° C. Because there's no atmosphere worth speaking of to retain that heat, at night the surface temperature plunges to a minimum of -173° C. Machines can sleep through the hot times and the cold. Human beings can't. So we have to keep on the move.

Mercury is roughly the size of Earth's moon and a day here, from dawn to dusk, is 176 Earth days long. Which makes it possible to move fast enough to outrun the sunset. But the planet's rotation is almost perpendicular to the orbital plain, so Quicksilver City can't just keep plodding the same circular path over and over. Every rotation is different, a new set of challenges, something unexpected to be overcome.

So we ride. It all comes down to us—the outriders and pioneers. We ride and blast and curse and sweat, and we know that we're the final and only hope that humanity has. That the human race is always and perpetually one day's bad luck away from extinction.

But when has it ever been different?

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

81. Thallium


A Perfect Murder

Agatha Christie knew she'd been poisoned as soon as the symptoms began to show. Give her that much credit, at least!

Hair loss, lethargy, tingling of the hands and feet, slurred speech … It was thallium poisoning. Thallium mimicked potassium, an essential element, which made it particularly difficult to get rid of. The body would excrete it into the intestines where, insidiously enough, it would be mistaken for potassium and reabsorbed.

There was no known cure.

Agatha knew, too, who the murderer was. Subtract ten days from the onset of hair loss, and one arrived at a literary luncheon. One accepted a cup of tea from a writer of international renown who was nevertheless jealous of her sales. Oh yes, Ernest was the culprit, all right.

But that wasn't important now. Agatha needed to find a cure, and quickly. If there was no known cure, she would simply have to find an unknown one.

Oddly enough, this was not her first brush with thallium poisoning. As a child, several classmates had come down with it—and one had died—after drinking milk from a cow that had eaten molasses baits laced with thallium sulfate and laid out for the rats. Seven children had drunk the milk, yet only six had fallen ill. One had not. What was his name?

Gummy! Gummy Oglethorpe. The other children had called him Gummy because …

Agatha lurched to her writing desk and snatched up the bottle of blue ink. Spasmodically, she drank it down.

The next day she was a little better, and the day after better yet. She kept drinking ink until the symptoms were entirely gone.

Gummy Oglethorpe had been a compulsive fountain pen sucker. It had turned his gums the most amazing blue. Clearly something in the ink—she suspected the Prussian Blue—had substituted potassium for thallium, allowing the latter to be flushed from his system.

Now that she was better, Agatha turned her attention to her would-be murderer. Bloody amateur. She needed a way to kill him that would be swift, sure, and so perfectly undetectable that she would never be suspected of the deed.

She found it, of course. Give her that much credit, at least!

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.