by Reginald Bretnor
from "The Timeless Tales of Reginald Bretnor"
selected and edited by Fred Flaxman
© Story Books, 1997
This was the first of Bretnor's short stories to be published. It appeared in Harper's Magazine in August, 1947. It was later reprinted in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in February, 1953. The story appeared later in a book, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Third Series, put out in hardcover by Doubleday & Co. in February, 1954, and in paperback by Ace Books in 1960. The story was also published by magazines in Great Britain, France and Spain. It was included as well in Bretnor's book, One Man's BEM: Thoughts on Science Fiction, published by The Borgo Press in both hard and soft cover in 1990.
Maximus Everett, who taught physics at Woodrow Wilson Union High School for nearly twenty years, was the first man to accomplish nuclear fission in his basement.
It really wasn't much of a basement either. Along one side was the workbench, littered with tools and wire and dusty old books. On the other side was an empty birdcage and a utility sink with a dripping faucet. A couple of shabby trunks stood in a corner next to a broken lawnmower, and some baled magazines the Red Cross people had forgotten to call for were piled up behind the cyclotron.
The final result of his scientific labors pleased Everett. After observing it quietly for a while, he went upstairs to the kitchen, where his wife was making chopped-olive-and-egg sandwiches. He sat down on a stool, wiped his long bald forehead, and remarked that it certainly was hot in the basement. Without turning around, his wife assured him that this was not abnormal. "Here in Arizona," she observed, "right near the border, it's always hot in summer."
Everett did not dispute the point. "Oh, it's not only that," he told her. "I've just been working pretty hard. It's been a tough job." He leaned back with a little sigh of satisfaction. "I've invented atomic power, hon."
"So that's what you've been doing," said Mrs. Everett. "I thought you were still working on your perpetual motion machine." She cut the last sandwich diagonally in half, put some sliced pickle on the platter, and turned around, smoothing her ample apron. Then suddenly she looked accusingly at her husband. "Why, that's ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "What do you mean, you invented it? How about Hiroshima?"
"That was different," said Everett simply. "That was just a big bang. Anybody can invent that kind."
Mrs. Everett-a librarian, and rather dogmatic-showed signs of irritation. "All the authorities," she declared, "say that you have to have uranium, and that it's very rare. Then you have to make it into something else, and it costs millions and millions of dollars."
"That's what they think," replied Everett, shaking his head mildly. "Well, they ought to know, if anyone does!"
"I have the utmost respect for them," he conceded. "After all, their work did help to make mine possible. It's just-well, you see, it's just that I don't need uranium. I discovered a new element about a week ago, and...."
Mrs. Everett was wearing the expression she usually reserved for people who tried to explain away overdue books. "Just how could you discover a new element when they've all been discovered?" she asked bleakly. "And what is it called?"
"Frijolium," Everett replied. "I discovered it a week ago Tuesday. And it hardly costs anything."
"Yes, but where did you get it?"
"I made it. That is, I purified it. Pure frijolium, for the first time in history." "Well, it sounds sort of familiar to me," mused Mrs. Everett. "Frijolium--now wherever...?"
"Sort of familiar?" Everett echoed. "Well, it should! Frijolium. You know, from frijoles."
Marriage and the public library had hardened Mrs. Everett; she took it all in her stride. "Maximus Everett!" she snapped. "Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you've found a new element in plain old Mexican beans?"
Everett hooked his thumbs in his belt and tilted the stool back on its hind legs. "We-ell," he said, obviously weighing the question carefully, "it would not be quite correct to say that frijoles contain a new element. As a matter of fact, they are the new element."
"But frijoles are just beans!" protested Mrs. Everett, rather loudly. "Anybody'll tell you that. They contain proteins, fats, and carbohydrates."
"Those substances," Everett said, "are impurities. Fresh frijoles are 92.733 per cent pure frijolium. I have isolated it. It has a relatively low atomic weight, but is adequately unstable. The nucleus may be split quite readily by..."
"Oh, never mind!" Mrs. Everett cried, stamping her foot. "Do you really expect me to believe that? Why, there would have been an explosion."
"No, there wouldn't. I didn't want an explosion. I used the frijolium from one small frijole-that's the minimum critical mass-and it's really quite easy to control. You can turn it on and off just like a vacuum-cleaner."
"Well, I don't believe a word of it! All the experts say atomic power can't be controlled like that."
Everett shook his head, pityingly. "That's what they think. I've had it running the washing-machine for three hours.… And," he added, "if I didn't turn it off, it would run for almost exactly seventy-two years. What do you think of that?"
After this, of course, Mrs. Everett followed him back into the basement to see for herself. The washing-machine was busily churning away next to the cyclotron, quaking and rattling just as it always had. Mrs. Everett sniffed. Warily, she walked around it, peering at the chipped enamel of its framework. As far as she could determine, its appearance had not changed-and she said so rather acidly.
"If this is your idea of a joke," she said. "I don't think it's at all funny. Of course, if you haven't broken my washer, there's no real harm done, but...."
Everett interrupted her. He pointed to the back of the washer. "Look!" he said, with great dignity.
Looking closely, she saw a small aluminum box, with a round hole in the top and an insulated cord leading to the motor. "Wasn't it there before?" she asked.
"It was not!" Everett said. "That is the generator. You drop the frijolium through the hole. That little switch on the box works a shield inside that turns the energy on and off." He flipped the switch, and the washing-machine chugged twice and was silent. He flipped it again, and the machine came back to life.
"See?" he said triumphantly.
Mrs. Everett was still dubious. "Where do you plug it in?" she inquired. "You don't," her husband replied patiently. "That's the whole idea. The generator converts atomic power from the smashing of the frijolium nuclei directly into 110 volts A.C., just like the house current."
"You-you mean we won't have any bills to pay?" Mrs. Everett said, beginning to be impressed.
"Not a penny. Not after I get the rest of the house wired."
"Why, Maxie! Why, that's wonderful! And we could put it on the car too, couldn't we?"Mrs. Everett patted the washing-machine with genuine affection. "Just wait until I tell Mrs. Myers," she exulted. "Ever since they made Henry principal, she's been acting as if we were below them socially or something. And it was she who told the grocer-boy that you were all thumbs, not handy around the house like Henry was."
"Oh, Henry's all right," Everett said. "I think he'll be pleased when he hears about it. After all, it'll be nice for the school, too; it'll help to keep up interest in the physics classes."
"I should think he ought to be pleased," snorted Mrs. Everett. "He couldn't invent atomic power."
"Maybe," Everett said wistfully, "maybe he'll let me give up coaching basketball."
"I'll phone her right after lunch," Mrs. Everett said with a gleam in her eye.
Mrs. Everett was as good as her word. She was sweetly condescending to Henry Myers' wife, who responded with a gratifying display of irritation, awe, and envy-and this reaction encouraged her to call up quite a number of other people. It was Saturday, and she didn't have to go back to the library, and so she was able to spend the rest of the afternoon on the telephone. She was still there at five o'clock, when the reporters started to arrive.
The first journalist was a brash young man with an unhealthy complexion. "I'm from the Bulletin," he announced, cleverly getting his foot in the door as Mrs. Everett opened it.
"There must be some mistake," Mrs. Everett said coldly. "We paid the boy two months in advance, and anyway we take the Tribune."
"No mistake," said the journalist. "Here's the card." He thrust a card at her menacingly and, as she retreated, thrust himself after it, craning his neck to peer around the room. "Where's the guy with the atom bomb?" he demanded.
"Oh, you're a reporter!" Mrs. Everett said, wide-eyed.
"Where's the atom bomb?" repeated the journalist, peering into the fireplace. "Atom bomb?"gasped Mrs. Everett. "Dear me, no. There isn't any. It's just atomic power. It's running the washing-machine."
The journalist seemed disappointed. "You sure?"he said.
"Why, of course," replied Mrs. Everett. "Maximus-that's Mr. Everett-will be here in a minute or two. He'll explain it to you. If you'll just have a seat for a minute, I'll go and get him." She started out. "If you'd like to look at the new Geographic," she offered, "it's on the mantel."
The journalist grunted politely as she left the room. Then he took a quick look at the bookcase, discovered two volumes by Jules Verne and one by H.G. Wells, noted down their titles. Having done so, he opened the door for his cameraman, and together they began examining Everett's desk for matters of scientific interest.
The Everetts, entering, did not notice this investigation; they were momentarily blinded by the flash-bulb that greeted their return. Everett tried simultaneously to rearrange his hastily-assumed necktie with one hand and to shake hands with the journalist with the other, and succeeded in looking quite confused and slightly wild.
Mrs. Everett blinked and said something about how clever Mr. Everett was. The journalist promptly asked about the atomic bomb again, and did not conceal his resentment when Everett assured him that there was nothing so dangerous in the house. He slumped down into the nearest chair, muttered indignantly that he had flown down from Phoenix, flipped his notebook closed. "Well," he said to Everett, "give."
And, modestly enough, Everett gave. He told of his search for practical atomic power. He exhibited his home-made cyclotron and the converted washer. He posed for a dozen or more photographs, and he answered all questions with the utmost patience. "Of course," he said, "I could have made a bomb if I'd wanted to, but I think this is so much more useful, don't you?"
The journalist made a note of this remark. "Yeah," he said, "sure. But all the big shots say it can't be done for ten or twently years." Everett grinned. "That's what they think," he said. "You see, they haven't heard about my new element. It's the new element that does the trick. And it hardly costs anything; that's the nice thing about it."
The journalist poised his pencil.
"I call it frijolium," Everett continued. "From frijoles, you know."
The journalist's face twitched suddenly. He darted a quick, covert glance at his companion. "No kiddin'!" he said, with a nasty smile. "You mean it comes from frijoles-from beans?"
"That's right," Everett assured him. "From common old Mexican beans. They're full of it."
"Say, that's something! That's really something!" The journalist slapped Everett heartily on the back. "Isn't that something, Pete?" he cried. Pete took another photograph.
The first journalist didn't stay very long after that. He remembered that he was in a terrific hurry, and he delayed only long enough to use the telephone very briefly. Mrs. Everett, overhearing part of the conversation, marvelled at the strange jargon of his craft.
"...Yeah," he said, "...uh-huh, a squirrel... but good!... sure... runs the washer on frijolium... from frijoles... you heard what I said, as in beans!... Willie'll eat it up...."
But that was all Mrs. Everett heard, because just then the other journalists started to arrive.
There were a lot of them, male and female, and they gave the Everetts a very busy evening. As a matter of fact, it was two-and-a-half hours past midnight when the last journalist-a heavily-mustached lady who had been questioning Mrs. Everett about the more intimate details of her married life-folded her notes and departed.
After the door had been securely bolted, a strangely demure Mrs. Everett looked up at her husband. "Oh, Maxie," she fluttered, "that woman asked me the most embarrassing questions."
"Dear me," Everett said uncomfortably. "I wonder why?"
There was a moment of silence. Then Mrs. Everett sighed. "Well anyhow, you'll probably be quite famous now," she suggested. "They... they may even ask you to go to Washington."
"That would be nice," Everett said, "but I don't see how I possibly could before the end of the semester."
Mentally reading future headlines, Mrs. Everett ignored the objection. She glimpsed a brief and garbled vision of honorary degrees, speeches, movie contracts. "All those newspaper people were so disappointed because you hadn't made a bomb," she reflected. "It does seem a shame, too, after they went to all that trouble. Don't you think you could make just one? Maybe just a little one...."
"No," Everett replied. "I'd rather not. I don't like to seem obstinate, but whatever would we do with it?"
The Everetts were given no chance to stay in bed that Sunday morning, for the press returned in force on the heels of the milkman, and soon the household was as agitated as it had been the night before. The telephone was constantly in use; light-hearted journalists came and went; and Mrs. Everett whispered a thousand confidences to ladies who knew just how to contrive high romance from the most unpromising materials.
At fifteen minutes to twelve, Maximus Everett was perched on the pile of old magazines in the basement, rather hoarsely lecturing on the peculiar merits of the frijole as a fissionable material, while several members of his audience examined and photographed an assortment of rusty plumbing installed for an experiment long since abandoned and forgotten. It was here that Mrs. Everett found him when she descended the stairs to announce the arrival of Henry Myers.
"I do hate to interrupt," Mrs. Everette said delicately but firmly, "but could you come upstairs for a minute, dear? There's someone to see you."
"Tell him to come down," Everett replied. "I'll start over again so he won't miss anything."
"But it's Henry!" protested Mrs. Everett, leaning out over the rickety railing. "He says it's important!"
Everett came suddenly alive. "Henry?" he cried. "I told you so! He's changed his mind about my coaching basketball. I'll be right up. Tell him I'll be right up! Boys," he said to the journalists,"do you mind waiting down here? Just browse around. I won't be a second."
"Go right ahead," they answered, as one man. And they followed Everett enthusiastically as he took the stairs three at a time.
Henry Myers was waiting in the livingroom, standing with his broad back to the fireplace. He held his hat in one hand, a folded newspaper and an envelope in the other. His eyebrows slanted down toward the bridge of his nose with administrative severity-and they relaxed neither at Everett's entrance nor at his hearty greeting.
"Henry, old boy!" At the head of his escort, Everett swept across the carpet with outstretched hand. "I'm sure glad to see you! Come on down and…." And then Maximus Everett was checked in full career. Henry Myers spoke. His voice was sharp and metallic, an unkind voice, the voice of a man who for years has dealt none too gently with refractory adolescents.
"Everett," he said, "I had hoped to see you privately; I see that privacy is impossible. However, I anticipated such a contingency. I came prepared, and I shall do what is necessary without further discussion."He thrust the newspaper and the envelope into Everett's welcoming hand. "One," he declared, "will explain the other."
Then he turned on his heel, jammed his hat on, angrily brushed aside two questing newsmen-and the front door banged behind him.
Now, quite understandably, this interview knocked Maximus Everett slightly off-center. He stared open-mouthed at the quivering door, only remotely conscious of a buzz of voices, of questions being asked, of objects in his hand-until a voice more strident than the rest made itself heard.
"Let's see!" it shouted. "Let's take a look! Take a look, Maxie!"
So Everett looked. Mechanically, he started to unfold the newspaper, recalling vaguely that it was the first he had seen since his discovery was made public. As the black headlines appeared, there was a sudden hush.
At first, Everett only realized that he was reading about himself; though the meaning was seeping through, he was still protected against its full import.
WHOOPS! yelled the headlines gaily, BEAN ATOM BUSTED.
Below that, two lines of smaller type proclaimed:
Frijole Fission Runs Washer for Basement Einstein: Clean Undies Prove Plutonium Now Obsolete.
And there, to illustrate the point, was a picture of the Everetts, grinning idiotically as they displayed the significant article of apparel against the side of the cyclotron.
Still functioning mechanically, Everett by-passed the caption to find the story:
Mighty forces-[he read]-which Arizona's old-timers have always suspected to lie lurking in the redoubtable Mexican frijole have at last been liberated, according to Maximum Everett, high school physics teacher and self-proclaimed basement genius of Concho County, who yesterday took the wraps off his home-grown Oak Ridge project for the first time and let everybody in on the swell new world now looming up (says he) on the bean horizon....
Numbed as he was, Everett might very well have gone on to read the rest of the story, but just then some more black type, off to one side, caught his notice:
BEAN-BUSTER MAXIE NO COLD FISH, SAYS MRS.
Atomic Love Brings...
But that was as far as Everett got. Full comprehension, long delayed, hit him with a solid rabbit-punch. The paper fell from his fingers to the floor. A large round tear, forming at the corner of his eye, began to slide slowly down his cheek.
Observing these phenomena, Everett's audience found it expedient to melt away, motivated perhaps by delicacy, perhaps by an intuitive appreciation of the fact that the really worthwhile part of the show was over. One by one, unnoticed by their host, they made their departure, until only two or three of the unregenerate were left. These waited patiently until Everett recovered enough to open Henry Myers' letter. Then they read it over his shoulder, finding it brief and to the point:
My Dear Mr. Everett:
In view of the scandalous events of the past two days, the Board of Trustees has instructed me to notify you of the termination of your contract. The Board is granting you an extended leave of absence (without pay) until the end of the present semester, at which time the termination will take effect. The Members of the Board and I agree that, under the circumstances, no additional explanation of this action can be necessary.
Very sincerely yours,
Henry T. Myers, Principal
Nobody said anything. After a moment, Everett carefully folded the letter again and returned it to its envelope. Then he walked to the door and held it open until the last of his remaining visitors had filed out, and only when it was locked behind them did he permit himself a brief outburst of emotion. He tore the letter in half. He threw it on the floor. He said, "That's what you think!" angrily several times.
Bean-Buster Maxie was a nine-day wonder. The press, finding him suddenly uncooperative, confined its efforts to questioning friends and neighbors, fell back on its already large store of photographs, and explained the working of the Everett washer by hinting broadly at hidden wiring and compressed air. Before fresher wonders forced frijole back through the want-ads into oblivion, its every aspect had been thoroughly explored. There had been several jolly interviews with lesser physicists, several with screen and radio comedians, one with the spiritual leader of a vegetarian cult, and one with a rather bawdy admiral.
But the giants of the scientific and political worlds had held themselves aloof, refraining from all comment. The powers-that-be had not summoned Everett to Washington. No academic senates had honored him. No universities had invited him to join their faculties. Even the FBI, hastily checking up on all known foreign agents and finding them uninterested, had dropped him from its social register.
During the weeks that followed this brief period of international notoriety, the Everetts kept very much to themselves, scarcely stirring out of the house, and greeting even their oldest friends with a frigid reserve. Everett buried himself in his work, first converting the house-circuit to frijolium-power, then installing a generator in the family car.
Mrs. Everett, who had resigned from the Public Library after a determined but futile resistance, was his constant companion; and many were the long evenings they spent together, reading Walt Whitman aloud and making nebulous plans for a frijolium factory. Even after small boys stopped hooting at Everett in the street, they hesitated to venture far abroad; only the inexorable operation of economic law finally forced them out of the fancied security of their retreat.
Everett had never been too provident a man, and people of moderate means who invest in cyclotrons - no matter how small - seldom retain respectable bank balances. After about two months, Everett started job-hunting. He hunted in person and he hunted by mail, and he found both methods equally fruitless. Whatever he tried, there were - curiously enough - no vacancies. Once he was offered temporary employment as a sheepherder, but this was while he still was relatively solvent, and the chance did not come along again.
In six more weeks, the Everetts found themselves reduced to exactly 70 cents in cash and a dubious charge account. They discovered this just after lunch, and they moved to the living-room to discuss the matter.
"All this would never have happened," said Mrs. Everett bitterly, "if it hadn't been for that Henry Myers. I warned you against him the first day you met him, Maximus."
"Oh, Henry's not so bad," Everett protested. "It wasn't his fault, dear, I'm sure. The press just treated the whole thing with such a complete lack of understanding." He shrugged. "Well, I guess we'll just have to take out a second mortgage to tide us over. I hate to do it, but...."
"What?" cried Mrs. Everett. "And stay in this town? I'd sooner scrub floors! We ought to sell the place, and go away to...."
But Mrs. Everett was not fated to reveal her intended destination, for at that instant the doorbell rang. It rang once; then it rang again. It was starting its third summons when Everett opened the door, blinked into the sunlight, and found himself looking at three strangers - all of whom were dark and obviously foreign.
"What do you want?" Everett demanded rudely.
There was a tall dark man with a mustache and a black Homburg hat. There was a small dark man with a mustache and a black Homburg. There was a very large dark man with neither.
The tall dark man bowed profoundly over his stick and gloves; so did his small companion. The very large dark man kept his hands in his pockets and looked straight ahead.
"Do I address Doctor Everett?" inquired the tall dark man with grave courtesy and a marked accent.
Everett, who had obtained his B.A. with some little difficulty, was pleased in spite of himself. He blushed, cleared his throat, and coughed affirmatively. "Then permit me to introduce myself," said the tall dark man, handing him a visiting card.
Everett took the card. Antonio L. MacJones, he read, Ph.D., LL.D. (Columbia '22), Minister of the Interior, The Raptarian Republic.
"Won't you come in?" Everett mumbled.
Once inside, the Minister of the Interior presented his colleague. "This," he announced, "is our General Troppo. In our country, he is Minister of- of Education."
The general clicked his heels and bowed.
"Education?" Everett asked suspiciously. "And he's a general?"
The Minister of the Interior explained that in his tranquil land military rank was largely honorary. "...in memory of our great liberator, who died in battle 112 years ago," he added.
Everybody sat down except the very large dark man, who stood with his hands in his pockets, and kept peering out of the windows. There was some further exchange of formalities, with flowery Raptarian solicitude for the good health, past, present, and future, of Mr. and Mrs. Maximus Everett. Then the Minister of the Interior spoke at length about what his government was doing for the Common Man, and about a President so well-beloved that no other had been elected for nearly 30 years - and throughout his speech the dove of peace cooed a gentle obbligato.
The Everetts were enthralled. They saw the peaks and plains, the lush groves and verdant jungles of Raptaria. They beheld the clean, hard-working Raptarian peasant leading his chubby children to a new and splendidly-appointed school provided by a government whose watchwords were Benevolence and Progress.
The Minister of the Interior paused, and the Everetts sighed longingly - and as they did so he rose suddenly to his feet, lifting a hand to heaven.
"That is why we are here today," he cried out. "So that you, Maximo Everett, can aid us in our great humane task! In our country we have a physicist, a good man. He tells us that his work confirms your wonderful discovery. Already we have formed a Frijole Control Commission! - Come to us! Though we are poor, you will have everything you need. You will be Vice-Minister of Education. You will work directly under General Troppo!"
Having finished, the Minister of the Interior opened his arms in a magnificent gesture of ardent welcome, bowed, and sat down, quite winded by his exertions.
"Ah, not under me!" expostulated General Troppo with equal fervor. "Not under me! Say rather as a colleague, a comrade!" He smiled, radiating good fellowship. "Of course," he said to Everett, "you can make explosives?"
Everett frowned, but before he had a chance to reply Mrs. Everett answered for him. "Mr. Everett could make an atomic bomb just as easy as pie," she told the general, "but he doesn"t want to. He thinks they're very destructive, and he can't see any point to making them."
Everett nodded vigorously while the Raptarian dignitaries exchanged swift glances; then the Minister of the Interior stepped into the breach with hearty laughter. "My friend!" he exclaimed, as soon as his amusement had subsided. "My very good friend! I fear that you mistake the general's meaning! What use would we, in poor Raptaria, ever have for an atomic bomb? But we have mines in our mountains. We must build dams across our so-swift rivers. We need many roads and bridges. That is the kind of explosives the Minister of Education means - for blasting! Is that not so, General?"
"Yes, yes," the general said hastily -
"But of course," smiled the Minister of the Interior, "for that - and for our national holiday, when the happy people celebrate with fireworks. That is why we may want a very few explosives, though we want power-plants even more."
"Power-plants?" echoed General Troppo. "Yes, yes."
"We-ell," Everett said, scratching his head, "I guess that is sort of different." He hesitated. "I... I won't have to coach basketball, will I?" he asked diffidently.
Some time has passed since the Everetts went to the Republic of Raptaria. As Vice-Minister of Education, Everett naturally did not have to bother with any of the details of his departure. Everything, including a Raptarian passport for two, had been arranged by the Minister of the Interior, and it all went off very smoothly - so smoothly, in fact, that for a long time even the Everetts' neighbors did not know that they had moved out of town permanently. Nobody ever dreamed that they had gone abroad.
Nobody. Not even Henry Myers, who happened to mention the Raptarian Republic when he delivered his weekly speech on world affairs in the assembly hall of Woodrow Wilson Union High School a few days ago.
"...and by contrast," he informed the student body, "we have news of another quiet, orderly election in Raptaria, a little country many of you may not even have heard about."
He paused, to smile benighly at the upturned faces. "A lucky little country, too," he told them. "Too small to worry about the great quarrels that rend the world. Too poor," he continued, "to follow any ways but those of peace."
That's what he thinks.
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