Jack Martin, Destroyer of Worlds

From novel in progress: Destroyer of Worlds

Inside the book-lined library of the rambling two-story house, four men of middle age sat conversing in German. Three of them sat in comfortable old armchairs that had been dragged into a semi-circle in front of the room’s large, battered desk. The owner of the house, a kind man with wild greying hair, sat behind the desk, puffing on a pipe, idly toying with a golden Nobel Prize medal. The three visitors in cheap, rumpled suits refrained from smoking, unconsciously agreeing with each other that adding to the smoke emanating from their host’s pipe would quickly render the room’s air poisonous.

There was a pause in the conversation. The man behind the desk put down the medal, took his pipe and knocked the ash into a large marble ashtray, making no attempt to refill the pipe but instead spoke.

“The science is intriguing. Your reasoning shows no obvious flaws. However, I pray that there is some fundamental flaw that does not appear on the surface. If there is no such flaw, this could indicate the extinction of the human race is near.”

“Nearer than you suppose, Albert,” said Leo Szilard, the thin, nervous visitor sitting on the right. “For years I’ve been trying to get my relations out of Germany, to no avail. You think the Nazis would be happy to be rid of all of us Jews, but they are now holding onto us like we were made of gold. They don’t want us gone from Germany; they want us gone from the face of the Earth!”

“You speak as though the Nazis can’t be stopped,” replied Eugene Wigner in his dry, pedantic voice. “It is well known that you are in a constant state of paranoia, only living in hotels, with a suitcase always packed in case you need to flee. Yet you know that is not true, else why are you here tonight? If America combines its resources with those of the Soviet Union, Nazism can be crushed.”

“Not just the Nazis,” interjected Edward Teller, whose heavy eyebrows and saturnine features made him appear the epitome of a Hollywood gangster. “I was in Budapest in 1919 when Bela Kun’s Bolsheviks took over Hungary for a few months. You may think it a cliché to say the gutters ran with blood. It is literally true; saw it with my own eyes. Death squads everywhere, dragging people into the streets and shooting them down in front of their families, then often shooting down the families as well. The victims hardly seemed to matter; rich industrialists and poor shop owners, retired officers and junior clerks under the Hapsburgs, Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis. Half the country would have been killed if Admiral Horthy hadn’t staged a counterrevolution, scattering the Bolsheviks.”

“Forget Stalin and the Communists,” interjected an agitated Szilard. “I’m here because it is a final, desperate chance, not because it is likely. It is what our new countrymen call a ‘hail Mary’ in their peculiar game of football.”

“I don’t like the idea of relying on the Russians at all,” replied Teller in his deep, Hungarian-accented German. “Look at the nonaggression pact Stalin has just signed with Hitler. We all know that means the Nazis will soon attack Poland, and probably France. And Stalin will take his share of the booty, as he already has in the Baltic states. Nazis and Reds, both blood-crazed maniacs under the skin. They need to be held at bay by the fission bomb that we all know as being feasible.”

Albert Einstein, the man behind the desk with the disordered, greying hair, shook his head in disagreement. “Edward, I cannot believe Stalin is the threat that you seem to think. And I’m not sure that we need this, this… device to hold the Nazis at bay. Once it is developed, it will not be possible to ‘un-develop’ it.”

“I agree that a uranium bomb would be hideously expensive to develop, and equally destructive in use,” said Wigner, “but think what it would mean if Germany develops it first. It is possible. Despite so many top scientists having fled the Nazi regime, it still has many top-flight minds—Heisenberg, Diebner, Harteck, to name just a few. Albert, imagine Hitler with uranium bombs. Imagine the death, destruction, oppression that he has brought to Germany spreading throughout the entire world.”

Einstein’s kindly disposition instantly morphed into acute sorrow. “You all feel the letter must come from me?”

“It must,” responded Teller. “Roosevelt is not a man of science. My name, the names of Szilard and Wigner, will mean nothing to him. But you, Albert, you have become an international celebrity. Everyone knows you to be the most brilliant scientist alive, even though very few could understand the significance of your theory of relativity. Roosevelt and his people will listen to you.”

Szilard opened a manila folder on his lap, removed the single sheet of paper it contained, and slid it across the desk to Einstein, who picked it up and read it carefully, then read it aloud. “Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be converted into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the arisen situation seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the administration. I believe, therefore, that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations. In the course of the last four months, it has been made probable—through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. It is conceivable that this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of new types of extremely powerful bombs. A single bomb such as this, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port as well as some of the surrounding territory. Such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air

“In view of this situation, you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following:

  1. a) To approach government departments, keep them informed of further development, and forward recommendations for government action, giving particular attention to the problem of uranium ore for the United States;
  2. b) To speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with private persons who are willing to make a contribution for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining the cooperation of industrial laboratories which have the necessary equipment.”

After a long pause, Einstein placed the letter upon his desk, uncapped a fountain pen, and held the point just above his neatly typed name in the signature block. “Gentlemen, I will sign this, but I want it understood that I will not actively participate in the work of developing a fission bomb. If it were not for the fact the Nazis might develop one of their own, I would never sign this.” He scrawled his name, then placed the letter back in the folder and slid it across his desk to Szilard.

Szilard took up the envelope, saying, “We all know what doing this must cost you. Your pacifism is well known. I speak for all of us when I say we deeply appreciate you letting us use your name and hope that events will render it unnecessary to develop such an ungodly weapon.” Everyone else in the room ignored a derisive snort from Teller. Szilard continued, “I have a contact in the White House who will guarantee that not only does this letter get to Roosevelt but that he will read it carefully. Once again, our thanks. We are forever in your debt.”

Einstein sighed. “Now gentlemen, please forgive me, but I must draw this meeting to a close. I’m suddenly… quite tired.”

The visitors stood up and muttered farewells before filing out of the room. Edward Teller was the last of the three. At the door, he hesitated, then turned and spoke to Einstein in a low voice. “Albert, you can’t classify the laws of physics. Now that we know that a uranium fission bomb is possible, and how destructive it could be, it is only a matter of time before scientists in other countries reach the same conclusions and their rulers compel them to develop this weapon. All we can do is develop it first, so that no other nation would dare use it against the United States. With the possible exception of England, this nation is the last bastion of freedom in the world. Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese Emperor must not be permitted to rule here. Don’t feel guilty. There is nothing you should feel guilty about.” Teller jammed on a fedora and pulled it low over his face, making him appear even more gangsterish, and limped out of the room. Einstein sat motionless behind his desk for some minutes, then began to weep quietly.

Jack Martin: Destroyer of Worlds
For more information, visit https://jacksmartin.com/