"Juggernaut" (1944) by A. E. van Vogt

(actualisé le ) by A. E. van Vogt

This is an interesting wartime story inspired by the immense possibilities for both war and peace of new technological discoveries - here in the domain of metallurgy - that were so rapidly reshaping the world in that crucial decade.

It embodies in a way that special flavour of enthusiasm about the exciting possibilities of the major new breakthroughs in science that were so newsworthy then (and still are!), that gave science-fiction tales from the forties their distinctive aura that has remained so captivating.

It was first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with the illustrations by Kramer and the (superb) cover artwork by Timmins that can be seen here.





e-book versions of this story are available for downloading below.


JUGGERNAUT

The man—his name was Pete Creighton, though that doesn’t matter—saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, as he sat reading his evening paper.
A hand reached out of the nothingness of the thin air about two feet above the rug. It seemed to grope, then drew back into nothingness. Almost instantly it reappeared, this time holding a small, dully glinting metal bar. The fingers let go of the bar, and drew out of sight, even as the metal thing started to fall towards the floor.
THUD! The sound was vibrant.
It shook the room.
Creighton sat jerkily up in his chair, and lowered his paper. Then he remembered what he had seen. Automatically, his mind rejected the memory. But the fantastic idea of it brought him mentally further into the room.
He found himself staring at an ingot of iron about a foot long and two inches square. That was all. It lay there on the rug, defying his reason.
"Cripes !" said Creighton.
His wife, a sad-faced woman, came out of the kitchen. She stared at him gloomily. "What’s the matter now?" she intoned.
"That iron bar!" Her husband, half-choked, pointed. "Who threw that in here?"
"Bar?" The woman looked at the ingot in surprise. Her face cleared. "Johnny must have brought it in from the outside."
She paused, frowned again; then added: "Why all the fuss about a piece of scrap iron?"
"It fell," Creighton babbled. "I saw it out of the corner of my eye. A hand dropped it right out of the—"
He stopped. Realization came of what he was saying. He swallowed hard. His eyes widened. He bent sideways in his chair, and grabbed convulsively for the metal bar.
It came up in his strong fingers. It was quite heavy. Its weight and its drab appearance dimmed his desire to examine it thoroughly. It was a solid ingot of iron, nothing more, nor less. His wife’s tired voice came again:
"Johnny must have stood it up on one end, and it fell over."
"Huh-uh !" said her husband.
He found himself anxious to accept the explanation. The curious sense of alien things faded before the normalness of it. He must have been daydreaming. He must have been crazy.
He put the bar down on the floor. "Give it to the next scrap drive !" he said gruffly.

Hour after hour, the Vulcan Steel & Iron Works roared and yammered at the undefended skies. The din was an unceasing dirge, lustily and horrendously sounding the doom of the Axis. It was a world of bedlam; and not even an accident could stop that over-all bellowing of metal being smashed and tormented into new shapes.
The accident added a minor clamor to the dominating theme of stupendous sound. There was a screech from a cold roller machine, than a thumping and a sound of metal tearing.
One of the men operating the machine emitted some fanciful verbal sounds, and frantically manipulated the controls. The thumping and the tearing ceased. An assistant foreman came over.
"What’s wrong, Bill?"
"That bar!" muttered Bill. "I was just starting to round it, and it bent one of the rollers."
"That bar!" echoed the assistant foreman incredulously.
He stared at the little thing. It was a big bar to be going through a roller. But compared to the sizable steel extrusions and moldings turned out by the Vulcan works, it was tiny.
It was six feet long, and it had originally been two inches square. About half of its length had been rolled once. At the point where the strength of the rollers had been bested, the metal of the bar looked exactly the same as that which had gone before. Except that it had refused to round.
The assistant foreman spluttered, and then fell back on a technicality. "I thought it was understood," he said, "that in the Vulcan plants nothing over an inch and a half is rounded by rollers."
"I have had dozens of ’em," said Bill. He added doggedly: "When they come, I do ’em."
There was nothing to do but accept the reality. Other firms, the assistant foreman knew, made a common practice of rolling two inchers. He said:
"O. K., take your helper and report to Mr. Johnson. I’ll have a new roller put in here. The bent one and that bar go to the scrap heap."
He could not refrain from adding : "Hereafter send two-inch bars to the hammers."

The bar obediently went through the furnace again. A dozen things could have happened to it. It could have formed part of a large molding. It could have, along with other metal, endured an attempt to hammer it into sheer steel.
It would have been discovered then, its basic shape and hardness exposed.
But the wheels of chance spun—and up went a mechanical hammer, and down onto the long, narrow, extruded shape of which the original ingot was a part.
The hammer was set for one and one quarter inches, and it clanged with a curiously solid sound. It was a sound not unfamiliar to the attendant, but one which oughtn’t to be coming from the pummeling of white-hot metal.
It was his helper, however, who saw the dents in the base of the hammer. He uttered a cry, and pulled out the clutch. The older man jerked the bar clear, and stared at the havoc it had wrought.
"Yumpin’ yimminy!" he said. "Hey, Mr. Jenkins, come over here, and look at this."
Jenkins was a big, chubby man who had contributed fourteen ideas for labor-saving devices before and since he was made foreman. The significance of what he saw now was not lost on him.
"Ernie’s sick today," he said. "Take over his drill for a couple of hours, you two, while I look into this."
He phoned the engineering department; and after ten minutes Boothby came down, and examined the hammer.
He was a lean-built, precise young man of thirty-five. On duty he wore horned-rimmed glasses, behind which gleamed a par of bright-blue eyes. He was a craftsman, a regular hound for precision work.
He measured the dents. They were a solid two inches wide: and the hammer and its base shared the depth equally.
In both, the two-inch wide, one-foot long gouge was exactly three eighths of an inch deep, a total for the two of three-quarters of an inch.
"Hm-m-m," said Boothby, "what have we got here . . . a super-super hard alloy, accidentally achieved?"
"My mind jumped that way," said Mr. Jenkins modestly. "My name is Jenkins, Wilfred Jenkins."
Boothby grinned inwardly. He recognized that he was being told very quietly to whom the credit belonged for any possible discovery. He couldn’t help his reaction. He said:
"Who was on this machine?" Jenkins’s heavy face looked unhappy. He hesitated.
"Some Swede," he said reluctantly. "I forget his name."
"Find it out," said Boothby. "His prompt action in calling you is very important. Now, let’s see if we can trace this bar back to its source."
He saw that Jenkins was happy again. "I’ve already done that," the foreman said. "It came out of a pot, all the metal of which was derived from shop scrap. Beyond that, of course, it’s untraceable."
Boothby found himself appreciating Jenkins a little more. It always made him feel good to see a man on his mental toes.
He had formed a habit of giving praise when it was deserved. He gave it now, briefly, then finished:
"Find out if any other department has recently run up against a very hard metal. No, wait, I’ll do that. You have this bar sent right up to the metallurgical lab."
"Sent up hot?" asked Jenkins.
"Now !" said Boothby, "whatever its condition. "I’ll ring up Nadderly . . . er, Mr. Nadderly, and tell hint to expect it."
He was about to add: "And see that your men don’t make a mistake, and ship the wrong one."
He didn’t add it. There was a look on Jenkins’s face, an unmistakable look. It was the look of a man who strongly suspected that he was about to win his fifteenth bonus in two and a half years.
There would be no mistake.

A steel bar 2"x2"x12"—tossed out of hyper-space into the living room of one, Pete Creighton, who didn’t matter—
None of the individuals mattered. They were but pawns reacting according to a pattern, from which they could vary only if some impossible change took place in their characters. Impossible because they would have had to become either more or less than human.
When a machine in a factory breaks down, its operator naturally has to call attention to the fact. All the rest followed automatically out of the very nature of things. An alert foreman, and alert engineer, a skillful metallurgist; these were normal Americans, normal Englishmen, normal—Germans!
No, the individuals mattered not. There was only the steel ingot, forming now a part of a long, narrow bar.
On the thirtieth day, Boothby addressed the monthly meeting of the Vulcan’s board of directors. He was first on the agenda, so he had had to hustle. But he was in a high good humor as he began:
"As you all know, obtaining information from a metallurgist"—he paused and grinned inoffensively at Nadderly, whom he had invited down—"is like obtaining blood from a turnip. Mr. Nadderly embodies in his character and his science all the caution of a Scotchman who realizes that it’s time he set up the drinks for everybody, but who is waiting for some of the gang to depart.
"I might as well warn you, gentlemen, that he is fully aware that any statement he has made on this metal might be used against him. One of his objections is that thirty days is a very brief period in the life of an alloy. There is an aluminum alloy, for instance, that requires forty days to age-harden.
"Mr. Nadderly wishes that stressed because the original hard alloy, which seems to have been a bar of about two inches square by a foot long, has in fifteen days imparted its hardness to the rest of the bar, of which it is a part.
"Gentlemen"—he looked earnestly over the faces—"the hardness of this metal cannot be stated or estimated. It is not just so many times harder than chromium or molybdenum steel. It is hard beyond all calculation.
"Once hardened, it cannot be machined, not even by tools made of itself. It won’t grind. Diamonds do not even scratch it. Cannon shells neither dent it nor scratch it. Chemicals have no effect. No heat we have been able to inflict on it has any softening effect.
"Two pieces welded together—other metal attaches to it readily—impart the hardness to the welding. Apparently, any metal, once hardened by contact with the hard metal, will impart the hardness to any metal with which it in turn comes into contact.
"The process is cumulative and endless, though, as I have said, it seems to require fifteen days. It is during this fortnight that the metal can be worked.
"Mr. Nadderly thinks that the hardness derives from atomic, not molecular processes, and that the impulse of hardness is imparted much as radium will affect metals with which it is placed in contact. It seems to be harmless, unlike radium, but—"
Boothby paused. He ran his gaze along the line of intent faces, down one side of the board table and up the other.
"The problem is this : Can we after only thirty days, long before we can be sure we know all its reactions, throw this metal into the balance against the Axis?"

Boothby sat down. No one seemed to have expected such an abrupt ending, and it was nearly a minute before the chairman of the board cleared his throat and said:
"I have a telegram here from the Del-Air Corporation, which puzzled me when I received it last night, but which seems more understandable in the light of what Mr. Boothby has told us. The telegram is from the president of Del-Air. I will read it, if you please."
He read:
"`We have received from the United States Air Command, European Theater, an enthusiastic account of some new engines which we dispatched overseas some thirteen days ago by air. Though repeatedly struck by cannon shells, the cylinder blocks of these engines sustained no damage, and continued in operation, These cylinders were bored from steel blocks sent from your plant twenty days ago. Please continue to send us this marvelous steel, which you have developed, and congratulations.’ "
The chairman looked up. "Well?" he said.
"But it’s not probable," Boothby protested. "None of the alloy has been sent out. It’s up in the metallurgical lab right now."
He stopped, his eyes widening. "Gentlemen," he breathed, "is it possible that any metal, which has been in contact with the super-hard steel for however brief a period, goes through the process of age-hardening? I am thinking of the fact that the original ingot has twice at least been through an arc furnace, and that it has touched various other machines."
He stopped again, went on shakily: "If that is so, then our problem answers itself. We have been sending out super-steel."
He finished quietly, but jubilantly: "We can, therefore, only accept the miracle, and try to see to it that no super-tanks or super-machines fall into the hands of our enemies."

After thirty days, the metal impulse was flowing like a streak. In thirty more days it had crossed the continent and the oceans myriad times.
What happens when every tool in a factory is turning out two hundred and ten thousand different parts, every tool is sharing with its product the gentle impulse of an atomically generated force? And when a thousand, ten thousand factories are affected.
That’s what happened.
Limitless were the potentialities of that spread, yet there was a degree of confinement. The area between the battle forces in Europe was like an uncrossable moat.
The Germans retreated too steadily. It was the Allies who salvaged abandoned Nazi trucks and tanks, not the other way around. Bombing of cities had stopped. There were no cities.
The gigantic air fleets roared over the German lines, and shed their bombs like clouds of locusts. By the time anything was touched by the atomic flow, the battle line had advanced a mile or more; and the Allies had the affected area.
Besides, far more than ninety percent of the bombs were from storerooms in that mighty munitions dump which was England. For years the millions of tons of matériel had been piling up underground. It was brought up only when needed, and almost immediately and irretrievably exploded.
The few affected bombs didn’t shatter. But no one, no German had time to dig them out of the ground.
Day after day after day, the impulse in the metal crept along the battle front, but couldn’t cross over.
During those first two months, the Vulcan office staff was busy. There were vital things to do. Every customer had to he advised that the metal must be "worked" within a certain set time. Before that paper job was completed, the first complaints had started to come in.
Boothby only grinned when he read them. "Metal too hard, breaking our tools—" That was the gist.
"They’ll learn," he told the third board meeting he attended. "I think we should concentrate our attention on the praises of the army and navy. After all, we are now as never before working hand-and-glove with the government. Some of these battle-front reports are almost too good to be true. I like particularly the frequent use of the word ’irresistible.’ "
It was two days after that that his mind, settling slowly to normalcy from the excitement of the previous ten weeks, gave birth to a thought. It was not a complete thought, not final. It was a doubt that brought a tiny bead of perspiration out on his brow, and it prompted him to sit down, a very shaken young man, and draw a diagrammatic tree.
The tree began with a line that pointed at the word "Vulcan." It branched out to "Factories," then to other factories. It branched again, and again and again, and again and again and again.
It raced along railway tracks. It bridged the seas in ships and planes. It moved along fences and into mines. It ceased to have a beginning and an end. There was no end.
There was no color in Boothby’s face now. His eyes behind their owlish spectacles had a glazed look. Like an old man, he swayed up finally from his chair, and, hatless, wandered out into the afternoon. He found his way home like a sick dog, and headed straight for his workroom.
He wrote letters to Nadderly, to the chairman of the board of Vulcan, and to the chief army and navy agent attached to the enormous steel and iron works. He staggered to the nearest mailbox with the letters, then returned to his work room, and headed straight for the drawer where he kept his revolver.
The bullet splashed his brain out over the floor.

Ogden Taft, chairman of the board, had just finished reading the letter from Boothby when the urgent call came for him to come to the smelter.
The letter and the call arriving so close upon one another confused him concerning the contents of the letter. Something about—
Startled, he hurried down to answer the urgent call. An array of plant engineers were there, waiting for him. They had cleared all workmen away from one of the electric arc furnaces. An executive engineer explained the disaster.
Fumbling Boothby’s letter, alternately stunned and dismayed, the chairman listened to the chilling account.
"But it’s impossible," he gasped finally. "How could the ore arrive here super-hard? It came straight by lake boat from the ore piles at Iron Mountain."
None of the engineers was looking at him. And in the gathering silence, the first glimmer of understanding of what was here began to come to Ogden Tait. He remembered some of the phrases from Boothby’s letter: ". . . two million tons of steel and iron sent out in two and one half months . . . spread everywhere . . . no limit—"
His brain began to sway on its base, as the landslide of possibilities unreeled before it. New tracking, Boothby had mentioned, for the interior of the mines. Or new ore cars, or new—
Not only new. Newness didn’t matter. Contact was enough; simple, momentary contact. The letter had gone on to say that—
In a blank dismay, he brought it up in his shaking fingers. When he had reread it, he looked up dully.
"Just what," he said vaguely, "in as few words as possible, will this mean?"
The executive engineer said in a level voice:
"It means that in a few weeks not a steel or iron plant in the United Nations will be in operation. This is Juggernaut with a capital Hell."

It is the people who are not acquainted with all the facts who are extremists. In this group will be found the defeatists of 1940 and the super-optimists of 1943. Careless of logistics, indifferent to realities partially concealed for military reasons, they blunt their reasons and madden their minds with positivities.
In this group were Boothby and the engineers of the Vulcan Steel & Iron Works; and, until he arrived in Washington, the day after sending a dozen terrified telegrams, in this group also was Ogden Tait, chairman of the Vulcan board.
His first amazement came when the members of the war-planning board greeted him cheerfully.
"The important thing," said the Great Man, who was chairman of that board, "is that there be no morale slump. I suggest that all the iron ore and metal that is still workable be turned into peace-time machinery, particularly machinery for farm use, which must be heavy as well as strong. There will always be a certain amount of unaffected ore and scrap; and, since any machinery, once completed, will endure forever, it should not take long to supply all the more essential needs of the nation."
"But—but—but—" stammered Ogden Tait. "The w-war !"
He saw, bewildered, that the men were smiling easily. A member glanced at the Great Man.
"May I tell him?"
He was given permission. He turned to Ogden Tait.
"We have generously," he said, "decided to share our secret and wonderful metal with the Axis. Even now our planes are hovering over German and Japanese mines, ore piles, factories, dropping chunks of super-hard steel."
Ogden Tait waited, For the first time in his long, comfortable life, he had the feeling that he was not being very bright. It was a radical thought.
The member was continuing: "In a few months, what remains of the Axis steel industry, after our past bombings, will suspend operations."
He paused, smiling.
"But," Ogden Taft pointed out, "they’ll have had three months production while we—"
"Let them have their three months," the member said calmly. "Let them have six months, a year. What do you think we’ve been doing this last few years? You bet we have. We’ve been building up supplies. Mountains, oceans, continents of supplies. We’ve got enough on hand to fight two years of continuous battle.
"The Germans, on the other hand, cannot get along for a single month without fresh munitions.
"The war is accordingly won."
The Great Man interjected at that point: "Whatever prank of fate wished this Juggernaut upon us has also solved the peace forever. If you will think about it for a moment, you will realize that, without steel, there can be no war—"
Whatever prank of fate! . . . A hand reaching out of nothingness into Pete Creighton’s living room . . . deliberately dropping an ingot of steel.


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