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Title: Tricky Tonnage
Author: Malcolm Jameson
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Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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Tricky Tonnage
Malcolm Jameson

WHEN YOU'VE lived across the fence from an amateur inventor, you
come to expect anything. When the wind was right we used to get some
of the awfullest chemical stinks from the Nicklheim barn, and we got
so used to hearing explosions that they didn't bother us any more than
automobile backfires. We just took it for granted when we'd see Elmer,
the boy next door, walking around with his eyebrows singed off and the
rest of him wrapped up in bandages.

When Elmer was a little tad, he was a great enthusiast for
scientific fiction. You hardly ever saw him unless he was lugging some
Jules Vernian opus around, and he ate up all he read with dead
earnestness. With that yen for science it might have been expected
that he would shine at school, but it did not work out that way. He
wouldn't go along in the rut laid out for the run-of-the-mine student.
The physics prof finally had him kicked out for some crazy stunt he
pulled with the school's equipment. Elmer hooked it all together in a
very unorthodox way, and the resulting fireworks was quite a show.

Being barred from school did not faze Elmer. He rigged up his own
lab in the barn, buying the stuff from mail-order houses with money he
made doing odd jobs. Some of the people in the town thought the boy
might go places; most simply thought he was a nut. I belonged to the
former group, and sometimes helped the kid with small loans. Not many
of his inventions panned out, but he did sell one gadget useful in
television to a big company. In a way it proved to be a bad thing he
did. The company bought the idea outright and paid promptly, but
afterwards for reasons of its own, it suppressed the invention--an act
that irked Elmer exceedingly. It prejudiced him violently against big
corporations as such and the whole patent set-up in general. He swore
that after that he, would keep all his discoveries secret.

About that time his father died, and it looked as if Elmer had
finished with his scientific dabbling phase. Overnight he seemed to
mature, and after that he was seldom seen pottering around his barn.
He was busy about town, carrying on the little one-horse trucking
business bequeathed him by the old man. His truck was one of those
vintage rattletraps that appear to be always threatening to make the
legend of the one-hoss shay come true, but Elmer was a fair mechanic
and somehow kept the old crate going. Not only that, but to the
astonishment of the citizenry, he seemed to be making money at it, and
that at a time when rate competition was keen and gas expensive and
hard to get. I was beginning to think we had witnessed the end of a
budding scientist and the birth of an up and coming young business
man. It was Elmer himself who disabused me of that notion.

One morning he stopped his truck at my gate and came up onto the
porch. He pulled out a wad of bills and peeled off a couple of

"Thanks," he said. "It was a big help, but I'm O.K. now."

"Oh, that's all right," I said. "There was no hurry about paying
it back. But I'm glad to see you're doing well in the hauling game. It
may not be as distinguished as getting to be known as a big-shot
scientist, but at least you eat."

He gave me a funny look and sort of smiled.

"Hauling game, huh?" he sniffed. "I'd never thought of it that
way. I don't cart stuff around for the fun of it, or the money either.
That's incidental. What I'm doing is testing out a theory I thought

"What's that one, Elmer?" I asked. I had heard a lot of his
theories, first and last, and seen most of them go flop. Elmer had a
very screwy approach to the mysteries of nature.

"It's about gravity. I've found out what it is, which is more than
anybody else since Newton has done. It's really very simple once you
know what makes it."

"Yes," I agreed. "That is what Einstein says, except that he
hasn't finished his universal field formula. So you've beat him to

"Yes. I've been running my truck by gravity for the last three

That didn't quite make sense to me. The country road about was
hilly and a lot of coasting was possible. But still a vehicle couldn't
coast up hill. Elmer was studying me uncertainly, and I realized he
wanted to talk to somebody, but he was always so cagy about his
projects that I hesitated to come right out and ask.

"I've discovered something big," he said, soberly. "So big I don't
know what to do with it. I'd like to show it to somebody, only--"

"Only what?"

"Oh, a lot of reasons. I don't mind being laughed at, but I'd like
to keep this secret for awhile. If the other truckers found out how
I'm doing what I do, they might gang up on me, smash the truck, and
all that. Then again there's no telling what somebody else might do
with my idea if they got hold of it before all the theory is worked

"I can keep a secret," I told him.

"All right," he said. "Come along and I'll show you something."

I got in the truck with him. He stepped on the starter and the
cranky old engine finally got going, though I thought it would shake
us to pieces before it made up its mind whether to run or not. Then we
lurched off down the road, rattling and banging like a string of cans
tied to a mongrel's tail.

"Where does the gravity come in?" I asked.

"I don't use it in town," he said. "People might get wise to me."

We went on down to the oil company's bulk station. It had been
raining off and on all week and there was a good deal of mud, but
Elmer skirted the worst puddles and we got up to the loading platform
all right. It was there I got my first surprise. A couple of huskies
started loading up that truck, and when they were through I would have
bet my last simoleon Elmer would not get two miles with it. There were
six big barrels of grease, weighing four hundred pounds each, a half
dozen drums of oil, and some package goods. The truck kept creaking
and groaning, and by the time the last piece was on, its springs were
mashed out flat as pancakes. It was bad enough to have that overload,
but the stuff was for Peavy's store out at Breedville-forty miles away
over as sketchy a bit of so-called highway as can be found anywhere in

"You'll never get over Five Mile Hill with that," I warned Elmer,
but he just grinned and pocketed the invoices. The oil company agent
was looking on in a kind of puzzled wonder. He had used Elmer's
delivery service before, but it was clear that he didn't believe his
eyes. Meanwhile Elmer got the motor going and we backed out of the
yard. There was a good deal of bucking and backfiring and shimmying,
but pretty soon we were rolling toward the edge of town.

Just beyond the last house the Breedville road turns sharp to the
right into some trees, and Elmer stopped at a secluded place where
there was an outcropping of bedrock alongside the road proper. He
killed the engine and got a cable-like affair out of his tool box.

"The first step," he said, "is to tighten the load."

He hooked one end of the cable against the side of a grease barrel
and the other he led to the bare bedrock and attached it there. The
cable terminated in what appeared to be rubber-suction cups. It looked
as if it were made of braided asbestos rope, threaded with copper
wire, and near one end it spread out in a flattened place like the
hood of a cobra. There was a small dial and some buttons set in that.
Elmer set the dial and punched a button. Instantly there was a popping
sound as the truck bed stirred, and I saw that it jumped up about a
quarter or half an inch.

"Now heft that barrel," said Elmer.

I did. If there hadn't been another one right behind me, I would
have gone overboard backward. I got hold of the top of the cask and
gave it a tug, not dreaming I could budge four hundred pounds of heavy

But it came away with about the same resistance that an empty
cardboard carton would have had.

"What makes weight," explained Elmer, "is gravitons. All molecular
matter contains them in various degree. Up to now nobody knew how to
extract them. You could only manipulate weight by moving the matter
itself. I simply drain most of the gravitons off into the bedrock
where it will be out of the way. It's easy because there is a gravitic
gradient in that direction."

As an explanation it was a long way from being satisfactory. But
there was the barrel, plainly stencilled with its gross weight, and it
was now practically weightless. The weight had left as abruptly as a
short-circuited electric charge. Moreover, Elmer was shifting his
cable from one drum to another, and as he touched each one the truck
rose another notch. By the time he was through it rode as high as if
there was no load at all.

"I'll use the last one of these drums for power," said Elmer,
coiling up his cable and putting it away. Then I saw that he was
making a short jumper connection between it and another cable running
down under the cab to the hood. He lifted that up and showed me an
attachment on the shaft behind the motor. It was a bulbous affair of
metal and there were two leads to it. One was the connection to the
drum, the other was a short piece of cable that dangled to the ground.

"I call that my Kineticizer," said Elmer. "It is really a gravity
motor. It works on exactly the same principle as a water turbine
except that it doesn't require the actual presence of the water. The
upper cable has more gravitic resistance than the one I use to dump
the load. It feeds a slow stream of gravitons to the upper vanes of a
steel rotor. They become heavy and start to fall, exerting torque. At
the bottom they wipe the ground cable and the moving gravitons simply
waste away into the road. Four hundred pounds falling four feet gives
a lot of power-especially when you use it all. See?"

Did I? I don't know. It sounded plausible, and anyway Elmer banged
down the hood and we climbed back into the cab. That time we started
off like a zephyr. There was smooth, silent, resistless power, and the
truck being lightened of its load, leaped like a jack rabbit. The
gasoline motor was idle. The only noise was the rattling of the
fenders and the swish of the air. Breedville began to look more

After we straightened out on the road, Elmer began to tell me
about gravities.

"It was Ebrenhaft's work with magnetics that got me to thinking
about it. Since he was already doing magnetalysis I didn't bother to
go along that line. What interested me was the evident kinship on the
one hand between electric and magnetic phenomena in general, and
between the strong magnetism of electric fields and iron and the
relatively weak magnetism of all other substances."

I kept on listening. Elmer's whole theory of gravities was pretty
involved, and in some spots downright screwy. But on the whole it hung
together, and there I was riding along on a stream of moving gravitons
to prove it. According to the Elmerian doctrine, in the beginning
there was chaos and all matter was highly magnetic. It therefore
tended to coalesce into nebulae, and thence into stars.

There the fierce pressures and temperatures tended to strip the
basic matter of its more volatile outer shells and hurl them outward
in the form of radiant energy. Atomic stresses yielded enormous
quantities of light and heat and great streams of magnetons and
electrons. In the end there is only ash--the cold inert rocks of the
planetary bodies. With the exception of the ferric metals none of that
ash retains more than a bare fragment of its original magnetic power.
Yet even rock when in massive concentration has strong attractive
power. The earth is such a concentration, and its pull on the apple
was what woke Newton up.

From that concept Elmer dug into the apple itself and into the
atoms that compose it. Mass, he claimed, in so far as what we call
weight is concerned, is simply a matter of gravitonic coefficient, a
graviton being the lowest unit--one more aspect of the atom. It is the
nucleus of a magneton, what is left after the outer shells have been
stripped away. The graviton is utterly inert and heretofore locked
inseparably in the atoms of the substance to which it originally
belonged. If only they could be induced to move, their departure would
rob the parent substance of nothing except weight, and by moving pure
essence of weight potential energy could be turned into kinetic with
the minimum of loss.

"It was finding a suitable conductor that stumped me longest,"
Elmer confessed, "and I'm not telling yet what that is. But as soon as
I found it I built this motor. You see for yourself how beautifully it

I did, and I saw a myriad of rosy dreams as well. We took Five
Mile Hill like a breeze, almost floating over, thanks not only to the
silent drive but to the weightlessness of the cargo. I thought of all
the massive mountain ranges just sitting in their grandeur with
billions and billions of foot-tons of locked-up energy awaiting
release. I could envisage hundreds of kineticizer plants around their
slopes sending out an abundance of free power. What it did not occur
to me to think of was what would happen when those mountains
eventually became weightless. What worried me most just then was, how
the other properties of materials would be affected with alteration of
its natural weight.

"Oh, not much," said Elmer. "The relative weights of duraluminum,
steel and lead have nothing whatever to do with their tensile
strength. I drained off most of the weight of a pan of mercury and
tested it. I found that it got a lot, more viscous when it was light,
a characteristic that is overcome by its normal heaviness. But
otherwise it was still mercury. There is an anvil in my barn that
weighs less than a toy balloon. If it wasn't kept clamped to the block
it sits on, it would soar and bump against the rafters, but as long as
I keep it from doing that I can still hammer iron out on it."

We were nearly to Breedville when it began to rain again. Elmer
put up the storm curtains, and I asked him about how Mr. Peavy was
going to react at getting barrels of grease that were lighter than
whipped cream.

"I'm going to take care of that before we get there," said Elmer.

I found out what he meant when he pulled up under a railroad
underpass about a mile this side of Peavy's store. He got out and
produced his cable again. This time he attached it to the face of one
of the concrete abutments that held up the girders carrying the track.
One by one he reloaded the barrels by dead weight sucked out of the
abutment and let it run into the containers on the truck. Again the
truck body settled groaning on its springs.

"I'm working on a way to meter this flow more accurately," said
Elmer with a grin. "The last load out here Peavy squawked like
everything because the stuff was light. This time I'll give him good
measure. Nobody ever kicks at getting more pounds than he paid for."

Well, there it was--Elmer's stunt full cycle. No wonder his gas
and tire costs were less than anybody else's in the business, or that
he could set out on a long trip with an impossible load. He had only
to reduce the load to zero, using part of it for power, and replenish
it at the other end of the line.

We went on to Peavy's, using the wheezy gasoline motor again. No
one at the store saw anything amiss when we drove up, and though Peavy
was careful to roll each box and drum onto the scale, he made no
comment when he found them markedly overweight. He probably figured it
was only justice from the short-changing he had had on the delivery
before, and on which the oil company had been adamant as to
adjustment. Elmer then picked up some empty drums and we started back.

The rain was coming down hard by then, and when we got to the
underpass there were several inches of water in it. Elmer stopped long
enough to draw off a few more hundred pounds of avoirdupois into one
of the empty drums so as to have power for the trip home. He said it
was the best place along his route to get needed weight in a hurry. We
started up, but had not gone more than about a hundred yards when we
heard a terrific _swoosh_ behind us, and on the heels of it a
resounding metallic crash and the scream of shearing metal. The ground
shook, and a wave of muddy water swept along the road from behind and
passed us, gurgling among the wheel spokes.

"What on earth?" yelled Elmer, and stopped the car.

What was behind us was not pretty to see. The concrete abutment we
had just left had slid from its foundation straight across the road
until it almost impinged on its opposite mate. What had been the earth
fill behind it was a mass of sprawling semi-liquid mud. Sodden by days
of rain and heavy with water, the fill had come to act like water
behind a dam and simply pushed along the line of least resistance. The
now practically weightless retaining wall gave way, since there was
only friction to hold it where it should be. The two great black steel
girders that it supported lay at an awkward angle half in the pit
where the underpass had been, half sticking up into the air.

"Gosh," said Elmer, gazing at the spectacle. "Do you suppose I did

"I'm afraid you did," I said. "Maybe concrete don't need weight
for strength, but it has to have something to hold it down."

Well, the damage was done, and Elmer was scared. A train was due
soon and something had to be done about it. So we drove on to the
first farmhouse that had a phone and sent in word about a washout.
After that we went on home, Elmer being pretty chastened.

The days that followed were quite hectic. The more the railroad
and public utility commission engineers studied the retaining wall's
failure, the more baffled they became. The abutment itself was
unmarred in the least degree. There was not a crack in it, and only a
few chipped places where the falling girders had knocked corners off.
Experts chiseled chunks out of it and took them to dozens of
engineering labs. The records of the contracting firm that built it
were overhauled. The wall was up to specifications and had been
thoroughly inspected at the time of construction. The fragments
subjected to strains and stresses reacted as they should, having
exactly the tensile and compression strength it should have. The mix
was right, the ingredients without flaw. The hitch was that the stuff
under examination had about the same weight as an equal volume of
balsa wood!

Learned treatises began to appear in the engineering journals
under such titles as, "Weight Loss in Mature Concretes,"
"Extraordinary Deterioration Noted in Failure of Concrete Railway
Abutment," and so on. Throughout the whole strange controversy Elmer
never peeped, and neither did I. I kept silent for several reasons,
and only one of them was the fact that I had given Elmer my pledge not
to divulge his invention before he gave the word. Mainly I felt that
whatever I might tell them would be received as too ridiculous to be
believed. After all, people just don't go around sapping idle weight
from stationary objects.

The sequel to the incident has to remain obscure. The very ride
that let me into the secret proved also to be the cause of my being
excluded from it thereafter. I caught a cold that day, and before long
it turned into pneumonia. Complications followed, and there were some
months when I was confined to a hospital bed. When I was out again and
around, my neighbor Elmer had gone, presumably in search of wider

It is a pity that Elmer's unfortunate experience with his earlier
invention soured him on the usual channels of development, for I think
what happened to him later was that he got into the hands of
unscrupulous promoters. For quite a long time after the collapse of
the railroad crossing I heard nothing of Elmer himself or his world-
shaking discovery. But little bits of news kept cropping up that
indicated to me that while Elmer's secret was being kept, it was not
getting rusty from disuse, though he lacked the necessary business
imagination ever to put it to its best uses.

There was the phenomenal success of Trans-America Trucking, for
example. It was significant to me that the Eastern terminus of its
main haul was laid out in the bottom of an abandoned rock quarry and
its Pacific end in a deep canyon. I thought I knew where the power
came from, especially when an oil salesman told me he had tried hard
to get the Trans-American contract. They not only refused to buy from
him, but he could not find out what company, if any, was supplying
them. I also noted that Trans-America was continually embroiled in
lawsuits arising from discrepancies in weights. I knew from that that
Elmer had not yet solved the problem of metering his weight siphons.

There were other straws that pointed to Elmer's fine hand. Highway
engineers along the routes traversed chiefly by his trucks discovered
after a time that even the dirt roads over which the trucks ran needed
little or no binder. The surface soil was found to be incredibly
heavy, like powdered lead, and therefore did not dust away under high-
speed traffic. In the course of time it became as hard and compact as
the floor of a machine shop where iron chips form the soil.

But eventually there was trouble. Disloyal employees must have
stolen lengths of Elmer's mysterious graviton conductor, for there was
a story told in some glee of a policeman giving chase to a fleeing man
who had a big iron safe on his shoulders! The burglar got away, so for
a time Elmer's secret was comparatively safe. And then there was the
exposure of what was later known as the spud racket.

One of Trans-America's ex-truckmen, being aware that potatoes were
sold by the pound, saw opportunity. He absconded with a length of
Elmer's cable and set himself up in the potato business. He was modest
at first. The spuds he handled were overweight, but not too much too
heavy when he resold them. The dietitians in the big institutions were
the first to notice something wrong, for they had analysts to
interpret the figures. But greed got the best of the gangster
truckman. Not content with his initial ten or twenty percent boosts in
weight, he poured on the avoirdupois thicker and thicker. The average
housewife began to complain that big potatoes required all her
strength to lift.

The day the market inspectors raided the man's storehouse the cat
was out of the bag. They uncovered an endless stream of potatoes on a
conveyor belt that ran by a bin filled with scrap iron. As each spud
passed a certain point it was wiped by a wisp of mineral wool,
whereupon the belt beneath sagged deeply and spilled the potatoes onto
the floor. Cranes scooped them up and carried them to the packing

The subsequent prosecution ran into myriad legal difficulties.
There was ample precedent for dealing with short weights, but none for
artificially added surplus weight. Chemists sought to prove, once they
tumbled to the concept of movable gravitons, that the introduction of
ferrous gravitons into a food product constituted a willful
adulteration. They failed. The composition of the potatoes was no more
altered than is that of iron when temporarily magnetized. In the end
the case was thrown out of court, much to the anger of some
theologians who had also developed an interest in the case.

That there was at once a spate of laws forbidding the alteration
of natural weights was inevitable. State after state enacted them, and
the Interstate Commerce Commission began an investigation of Trans-
America Trucking, damaging admissions having been made by the potato
racketeer. It was the collapse of one of the cliffs at the western
terminus of that company that was the straw to break the camel's back.
Weight shifting became a federal offense with drastic penalties.

Perhaps collapse is a badly chosen word. The cliff disintegrated,
but it did not fall. It soared.

It happened late one afternoon shortly after a heavy convoy
arrived from the east. Thousands of tons of weight had to be made up,
and the power units of the incoming trucks recharged with still more
weight. The already lightened cliff yielded up its last pounds, for it
had been drawn upon heavily for a long time. Its stone, being loosely
stratified, lacked cohesion, so with sound effects rivaling those of
the siege of Stalingrad, it fell apart--upward--in a cloud of dust and
boulders. The fragments, though stone, weighed virtually nothing, rose
like balloons and were soon dispersed by the winds.

Unfortunately the canyon was not far from the most traveled
transcontinental air route. Within an hour pilots were reporting
seeing what they described as inert bodies floating in the upper air.
One of them ran into a stone no bigger than his fist, but since he was
making several hundred miles an hour at the time, it neatly demolished
one of his wings. That night two stratoliners were brought down, both
riddled with imponderable gravel. The debris while lighter than air,
still had some residual weight and unimpaired tensile strength.

Congress intervened. Trans-America's charter was voided and its
equipment confiscated and destroyed. Elmer was forbidden to resume
business except on orthodox lines. There was no place in the United
States for his invention.

That should have been the end of the Theory of Gravitics and its
unhappy applications. But it was not. For Elmer had associates by that
time who had tasted the luxury of sure and easy profits, and they were
not to be denied. Rumor had it that it was his shady partners who took
over the financial end and relegated him to his lab again to hunt for
other means of utilizing his kineticizer. However that may be, the
next stage was several years in incubation. For a time gravitons
ceased to be news except in scientific circles where controversies pro
and con still raged. People had already begun to forget when Caribbean
Power announced itself to the world.

It started operating from a tiny island republic known as Cangrejo
Key. Through oversight, or because it was a worthless patch of coral
sand frequently swept by hurricanes, mention of it was omitted in the
treaty between the United States and Spain at the end of the war of
1998. It was still Spanish until the graviton syndicate bought it from
an impoverished Franco for a few millions in real gold. Whereupon the
Cangrejo Commonwealth was set up as an independent state and a law to

By then they had one valuable addition to their bag of tricks--
Elmer's third great invention. It was a transmitter of beamed radio
electric power, and they promptly entered into contracts with large
industries in nearby America for the sale of unlimited broadcast power
at ridiculously low rates. At first the great maritime powers
protested, suspecting what was afoot and fearing the incalculable
effects on shipping if Caribbean Power meant to rob the sea of its
weight. But the storm subsided when the new republic assured them sea
water would not be touched. They pledged themselves to draw only from
the potential energy of the island they owned. So the world settled
down and forgot its fears. No matter what happened to Cangrejo Key,
there was the promise of abundant cheap power, and at the worst one
coral islet more or less did not matter. Even if its sands did float
off into the sky as had the canyon wall on the Pacific Coast they
could do little harm, the Key being well off the air lanes.

It was a premature hope, for they reckoned without the ingenuity
of the men behind the scheme. Soon great derricks reared themselves on
the Key and drills began biting their way into the earth. By the time
the holes reached eight miles depth the transmission towers were built
and ready. Then came the flow of power, immense and seemingly
inexhaustible. A battery of kineticizer-dynamos commenced operating,
suspended by cables deep into the bowels of the planet, converting the
weight that was overhead into kilowatts which were sent up to the
surface through copper wires. There it was converted into radio power
waves and broadcast out to the customers. It was good, clean power.
Industry was grateful.

How deep the syndicate eventually sunk its shafts no one ever
knew. Nor how many millions of tons of earth weight were converted
into electric energy and spewed out to the factories of the world. But
it took only a few years for the project to revolutionize modern
economics. With power literally as cheap as air, coal holdings became
worthless and petroleum nearly so. In the heyday of the power boom
cities like New York went so far as to install outdoor heating units
so that in the coldest of cold waves its citizens could still stroll
about without overcoats. There was no point in conservation any more.
Old Terra Firma had gravitons; to burn.

The beginning of the payoff came with the Nassau disaster. The
town was flattened by a mighty earthquake, and the attendant tidal
wave left little of the Florida coastal cities. When the tremors died
down the British Empire found it had added another island of near
continental size to its realm. The Bahama Bank had risen above water
and then stood from ten to fifty feet above sea level throughout. But
there was a rider attached to that dubious blessing. The bed of the
Florida Straits had risen correspondingly and the current of the Gulf
Stream diminished. Europeans began to worry about the effect of that
upon their climate.

Isostatic adjustment was responsible, sober geologists warned
darkly. Let the Caribbean Power gang continue to rob that region of
its proper weight there would be nothing to hold it down. Adjacent
geographical masses would push in to fill the vacuum, just as the
underlying, restless, semifluid magma would push up. The time would
soon come when mountains rivaling the Himalayas would rear loftily
where the Bahama Bank had been and when that day came the other
islands about it and the nearby continental areas might well be only
shoal spots in a shallowing sea. The Republic of Cangrejo had to go.
It was a matter for the new United Nations Court to decide.

Well, that's the story of Elmer Nicklheim's kineticizer as I know
it. I am still wondering whether he was with the gang the day the
bombers came over and blasted Caribbean Power off the map. If he was,
I think he must have been a prisoner, for the gang he at last teamed
up with turned out to be an arrogant, greedy lot.


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