The Great Explosion
By Eric Frank Russell, 1962.
Expanded from the original novelette “. . . And Then There Were None”
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WHEN AN EXPLOSION takes place lots of bits and pieces fly all over the scenery. The greater the wallop the larger the lumps and the farther they travel. These are fundamental facts known to every schoolchild old enough to have some sneaky suspicions about the birds and the bees. They were not known or perhaps they were not fully realized by Johannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder despite the fact that he was fated to create the biggest bang in human history.
Johannes Etc. Blieder was a lunatic of the same order as Unk (who first made fire), Wunk (who designed the wheel), Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers and many others who have outraged orthodoxy by achieving the impossible. He was a shrimp of a man with a partly bald head, a ragged goatee beard and weak, watery eyes hugely magnified by pebble-lensed spectacles. He shuffled around on splayed feet with the gait of a pregnant duck, had been making glutinous sniffs since birth and never knew where to put his hand on a handkerchief.
Of academic qualifications he had none whatever. A spaceship bound for the Moon or Venus could thunder overhead as such ships had done for a thousand years and he would peer at it myopically without the vaguest notion of what pushed it along. What’s more, he wasn’t the least bit interested in finding out. Four hours per day, four days per week, he sat at an office desk. The rest of his time was devoted wholly and with appalling single-mindedness to the task of levitating a penny. Wealth or power or shapely women had no appeal to him. Except when hunting a handkerchief his entire life was dedicated to what he deemed the ultimate triumph, namely, that of being able to exhibit a coin floating in mid-air.
A psychologist might explain this obsession in terms of an experience that Blieder had suffered while resting in his mother’s womb. An alienist might define it as the pathological desire of a sniffy-nosed little man to rise high in the world and look big. If he had been capable of self-analysis — which he was not — Blieder may have confessed the thwarted ambition to become an accomplished vaudeville artist. Though he knew nothing and cared less about the wonders of science he did nurse a mighty admiration for professional magicians and illusionists. To him, the greatest glory would be to hold the stage and dumbfound an audience with a series of clever stunts that were not faked, but real.
The actual truth, perhaps, was that bountiful Providence had chosen him to get somewhere in much the same way that other creative imbeciles have been chosen. Therefore he was animated by a form of precognition, a subconscious knowledge that success was sure if he kept after it long enough. So for fifty years he strove to levitate a penny by methods mental, mechanical or just plain loopy.
Upon his seventy-second birthday he succeeded. The coin positioned itself three-eighths of an inch above a pure cobalt disc that represented the output stage of a piece of apparatus bearing no relation to anything that made sense. He did not rush outdoors, yell the news all over town, get blind drunk and paw a few elderly virgins. Instead he blinked incredulously at the penny, sniffed a couple of times, sought in vain for a handkerchief. Then he stacked a dozen more pennies on top of the floater. It made no difference. The column remained poised with a three-eighths gap between the bottom coin and the cobalt disc.
Removing the coins, he substituted a heavy paperweight. The gap did not decrease by a hairbreadth. So he took away the weight and the penny, wondered whether a different metal would produce a different effect, tried it with his gold watch. That also sat three-eighths of an inch above the disc. He fiddled around with his apparatus, making minor alterations here and there in the hope of widening the gap. At one stage the watch vibrated but did not rise or fall. He concentrated on that point, adjusting and readjusting, until he was rewarded with a sound like a sharp spit. The watch vanished, leaving a small hole in the ceiling and a matching hole in the roof.
For the next fourteen months Johannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder struggled to master his brain-child. Knowing nothing of scientific methods his efforts were determined by guess and by God. In the end he had made every portable item in the house, metallic or non-metallic, float at an altitude of three-eighths of an inch or take off heavenward so fast that it could not be seen to go.
The time had come, he decided, to seek the aid of another and more agile brain. Characteristically, it did not occur to him to appeal to the department of physics of the nearest university. Instead he wrote to The Magnificent Mendelsohn, a top-flight illusionist. This was fortunate; a scientist would have dismissed him as just another crazy inventor whereas Mr. Mendelsohn, as a professional deceiver, was only too willing to take a look at any new swindle in the hope that he could improve upon it and confiscate it for his very own.
In due time Mr. Mendelsohn arrived wearing a theatrical black cloak and a cynical smile. He spent three exasperating days trying to determine exactly how the trick was done. Blieder was no help; he hung around snuffling continually and protesting that he had worked a miracle without being able to explain it. Using his prestige, which was world-wide, Mendelsohn called in two scientists to get to the bottom of the matter and, if possible, turn the apparatus into something more exploitable upon the vaudeville stage.
The scientists came with open minds, looked and saw, tested and retested, checked and rechecked, summoned six other specialists. A slight atmosphere of hysteria developed in the Blieder home as yet more experts were brought in. Finally Blieder himself, frightened and exhausted by the general hullabaloo, handed over his apparatus in return for a guarantee of five percent of whatever profit could be made out of it plus a solemn promise — on which he was most insistent — that the new principle he’d discovered would bear his name forevermore.
Ten months later Blieder died without giving himself time to receive a rake-off. Eleven years afterward the first ship went up powered with what was dutifully called the Blieder-drive. It made hay of astronomical distances and astronautical principles, put an end once and for all to the theory that nothing could exceed the velocity of light.
The entire galaxy shrank several times faster than Earth had shrunk when the airplane was invented. Solar systems once hopelessly out of reach now came within easy grasping distance. An immense concourse of worlds presented themselves for the mere taking and fired the imaginations of swarming humanity. Overcrowded Terra found itself offered the cosmos on a platter and was swift to seize the opportunity.
A veritable spray of Blieder-driven ships shot outward as every family, cult, group or clique that imagined it could do better someplace else took to the star-trails. The restless, the ambitious, the malcontents, the martyrs, the eccentrics, the antisocial, the fidgety and the just plain curious, away they fled by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands.
In less than a century fifty percent of the human race left aged and autocratic Terra and blew itself all over the star field, settling wherever they could give free vent to their ideas and establish their prejudices. This was the end-product of the obsession of a penny-levitator. It was written down in history as The Great Explosion.
It weakened Terra for four hundred years. Then came the time to pick up the bits and pieces . . . .