Rare Metals

21 Dec

Can a potential industrial revolution be prevented from becoming actual, despite its probability of success?

The story of Caque Enjeu gives some indication of the chances of blocking or aborting breakthroughs in advanced science and technology.

The location of these events was the uniquely endowed land of Pnyxia with its extraordinary wealth of rare earths and elements. Those metals are not easily obtained anywhere else in our solar system. The greatest such supply was that of cerium. It was this silver-white metal that provided the foundation of the primary Pnyxian industrial sector.

At the head of the Cerium Corporation stood Leger Pion, the president and main stockholder. For four generations, a Pion had been at the helm of the monopoly in control of the exploitation of the most abundant of the rare metals. New uses and applications were continually developed and offered on the planetary and galactic markets. The range of products became ever wider: photoelectric cells, spectrographic and scintillation devices, electromagnetic bits, infrared signalers, optical memories, and biochemical catalysts.

Leger Pion rose in wealth, pride, and confidence until the day he came across a small alloyist named Caque Enjeu. This occurred at the annual exhibition of new products given by the Cerium Corporation at the Mackerel Hotel of Central City in the early autumn. Tree leaves all over Pnyxia were yellowing in bright display of color when the public was allowed in to gawk at new solid state microwaves and advanced energy lasers. Leger sat smiling at a small desk on a low platform, greeting employees, acquaintances, and strangers. He remained impressive with his crewcut ginger hair and sparkling adamantine eyes, although the industrial magnate was entering early middle age.

A tall, skeletal stranger stepped up to him, grinning and extending forth his right hand.

“Mr. Pion, I am glad to be able to speak with you, person to person. My name is Caque Enjeu and my work as a private alloyist has provided me opportunity to find a way of replacing all products that contain cerium with another substance that is a hundred times more effective, as well as greatly more economical. May I make arrangements with you to demonstrate what I am now saying in more specific terms, sir?”

The industrial chieftain began to choke in a paroxysm of surprise.

“What? What are you telling me?” he managed to spit out as his self-control returned. His eyes took the measure of the gangling stranger. The alloyist had plumbeous dull eyes.

“Could you and I meet in private at my laboratory facility, sir?” proposed Caque Enjeu in a quiet, humble tone.

Leger Pion found himself nodding yes, moving the other to place a small address card on the industrialist’s desk. Then, the lanky one turned around and quickly disappeared out of view.

Was that a madman or a scientific genius of some sort? wondered the corporation executive.

The shining maroon luxury car cruised past distillation refineries of Cerium Corporation into a scrap and refuse-filled region. Here the driver located the address where the odd man had told Leger Pion to meet him.

“Stay here,” said the rich passenger. “I expect there to be no trouble and shall go in there alone.”

Climbing out a rear door, Leger opened the rusted steel gate and walked up to the entrance of the dilapidated, dirt-covered wooden building. It may have started out as a residential house, but what on the planet was it now? the visitor asked himself in wonder.

He climbed up onto an unsteady stoop and rang the door chimes. A light went on inside. The sound of someone approaching became audible and the door opened to reveal the man called Cacique Enjeu holding a bright beamer in one hand.

“So happy to see you, sir,” he grinned. “Do not misread where you are. My laboratory is in a large cellar beneath this flimsy old structure. Please, follow me down there.”

The magnate, closing the door behind him, entered a dusty corridor lit only by the bright lantern that Cacique carried.

Within seconds, the pair were descending a flight of steep stairs leading down into the basement. Soon they were in a gigantic chamber longer and wider than the wooden building above them. A variety of smelting and electronic devices were arranged in series along rows. The wealthy manufacturer stood gazing in amazement.

“I am impressed,” he muttered as he turned to his guide. “How did you finance all this expensive equipment?”

“My own personal earnings plus my family fortune,” replied Cacque. “And some help from close friends, as well.”

All of a sudden, a short man in a large white apron appeared and approached them.

“This is my laboratory assistant, Aveu Gemir. He has an extensive and deep knowledge of the rare metals.”

As he shook hands with him, Pion took in his soft flaxen hair and lapis lazuli eyes. Caque then led the group of three on a quick tour of the large chamber they were in, describing the devices and apparati as they walked along together. When they were finished, the trio entered the office the office of the owner. Each of them then sat down around a table in the middle.

“What do you think?” Caque asked the powerful industrialist.

Leger looked him straight in the eye. “You have not yet told me what substance you are using in this process,” he muttered with a grimace. “All I know is that it is not cerium that you deal with here.”

The face of Caque turned into an expressionless death mask as he began to speak in a hollow, deadly tone of voice.

“I shall now demonstrate to you the operation of the mega-conducting wire that we have created in our work.”

He leaned forward over a control panel fastened onto the edge of the table and started to push levers and buttons in an intricate pattern.

The ceramic top of the device lit up, showing lines and figures.

At the end of the table, large numerals became visible.

“Those quantities indicate the amount of voltage moving through the megawires,” said Caque. “I shall now slowly raise the current to the maximum transportable through the conducting cerametal.”

“It is fused into a ceramic alloy?” asked Leger with astonishment.

“Yes, sir,” replied Aveu Gemir instead of his employer.

Leger watched in wonder as the indicated voltage rose higher and higher, soaring to incredible amounts. His breathing and heart beat accelerated together. He was witnessing something he would have earlier called impossible.

When the demonstration ended, the manufacturer once again demanded to know the crucial new factor involved in all he had just seen.

“Tell me what this conductor consists of. Do not keep such a marvelous secret from me. It is necessary that I learn what can do that.”

Caque smiled to himself. “It is not time yet, sir,” he meekly declared.

Frustrated and seething with internal anger, Pion made an important decision at some point that sleepless night.

Early the next morning, he went to his corporate office and summoned together his most intimate staff. The problem of obtaining knowledge of the mega-conducting compound was presented to the small group. Their consensus was a unanimous one: the miraculous material had to come into the possession of the monopoly, even at the cost of breaking the law.

“We have a secret security crew capable of entering the premises and taking away whatever you tell us we need,” said the top legal officer of the corporation. “This can all be carried out so that no one can know or suspect anything. There will be no clues or traces left there. In fact, a fire can be set to burn down the entire laboratory and destroy everything in it.”

The president of the corporation felt a rising satisfaction with the reaction of his closest advisors.

“Yes,” he said to his associates “That will be the means by which we successfully gain control over this new development. The mega-conductor must become our property. I cannot rest in peace until it is. The appropriation of the substance will be an easy task to accomplish, and our agents will leave not a trace that anyone can ever follow to us.”

So it was that the clandestine project was set in motion by Leger Pion.

The secret job was completed efficiently and smoothly, without any fire being used to cover it up. Photosheet copies of the many notes in the desk of Caque Enjeu were rapidly developed and then delivered to the chief executive of the corporation.

In rhapsodic joy, Leger went through all that had been written down by Caque. The key to what he was searching for lay in a one-letter symbol: L. That was what was produced in the laboratory smelter, then drawn into mega-conductor wire. It had to stand for the core ingredient, the master metallic element. Looking up the rare earths in the chemical periodic table, it was easy for him to determine what it had to be.

Lanthanum, the lead gray metal that was a relative of aluminum.

How was he to proceed from this? Leger asked himself. The answer came to him swiftly, as if in a flash.

The one person who might show him how to ceramicize that enigmatic “L” was the assistant, Aveu Gemir. He was the only individual beyond Dr. Enjeu who had knowledge of all the technical details and secrets involved.

But how was he to get the little man to loosen his tongue and communicate what was needed?

Any attempt at coercion promised to produce only failure, that was certain.

What could Gemir be bribed with? How could he be convinced to be cooperative?

Leger Pion smiled when he decided what the enticement was to be.

That evening he was taken by lux-car to a spot a few blocks from the house owned by Enjeu, near the closest train station. Here Leger waited, certain that the assistant would sooner or later appear on his way home, wherever in the central city that might happen to be.

For a considerable time, the hydrazine-fueled engine was kept burning in idle. Then, Leger saw the assistant walking along the pedestrian walkway. He ordered his driver to approach the short figure from behind at a slow, cruising speed.

Aveu noticed the vehicle when it came up and stopped parallel to him.

The back door opened and Leger Pion became visible, inviting the walker to climb in.

What actual alternative existed for the technician under the circumstances, though? He was soon seated beside the billionaire and they were speeding out of the megalopolis, out past the cerium factories and furnaces.

Only after the lux-car reached the farms and pasturages did Leger begin to lay out what was in his mind.

“I know the name of the rare metal at the core of the mega-conductor. Don’t ask how I received that information. Now it becomes necessary for the Cerium Corporation to turn it into usable wiring. That is where you come in, my good man. I am ready to make you chief of our new mega-conductivity section. You will be in charge of the process of cerametal fabrication. It will all be in your hands. I will provide everything that you judge to be needed.”

Aveu, thinking as fast as it was possible for him to do, found that he was unable to give an immediate answer.

“I must sleep on this,” he said in a low tone. “By morning, I can tell you what I have decided to do. Your offer is a very generous one. Will you give me until tomorrow?”

“Certainly,” said the industrialist with a forced grin. “I am sure you will see reason and choose to do what is best for you.”

He then ordered the driver to take them back to the central city.

The technical assistant did not walk back to his own apartment, but instead took a train back to the residence and laboratory of Caque Enjeu. The latter, opening his front door, was surprised to see his helper at that late hour. “What is it, Aveu?” he inquired.

Only after the pair were seated in the front parlor on soft gummi chairs did the assistant narrate the events he had experienced that evening. All the details of Pion’s offer were retold.

Caque absorbed every word with total attention.

When his colleague had finished, he asked for confirmation on one of the major points that had been made.

“Mr. Pion believes that the “L” stands for lanthanum, then?”

“Correct. That is how the man interprets our shorthand symbol.”

Enjeu thought a few moments, rubbing his chin as he considered their situation.

“I think you should accept his proposal, Aveu. But there will be one thing you must never reveal to him or anyone else, the true meaning of our “L” sign. That has to remain our secret.”

“Hide the fact that lutecium is the mega-conducting factor we use?”

“Yes. Let the Cerium Corporation waste its time, personnel, and resources on a metal that we know will not fit the bill. In the meantime, I can begin production of the lutecium wire on a small but expanding scale. We will grab the advantage and outdistance Pion and his company. In a few years, domination will be ours once the superiority of our superconductor is scientifically established.”

“I will continue to mislead Mr. Pion and his crew,” nodded Aveu.

“It is not an easy assignment, my friend, but I know you can do it. The secret weapon in our defeat of the cerium monopoly is the vanity of Leger Pion.”

“I will deceive the fool, then,” promised the assistant to his chief, Caque Enjeu, with a sly, impish smirk.

Does he believe that I will not reveal this stratagem to Pion, thereby winning myself many well-deserved rewards? Aveu asked himself as he made his way home.

Can I keep my word to Caque Enjeu while he is deceiving the richest man in all of Pnyxia? mused the fellow-conspirator in the crooked rare metal scheme starting to get under way.

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