"Fields balanced to within one tenth of a ppm and centred on spec!"
All eyes turned towards the Chief Engineer, who in turn had been studying dials and screens as if his life depended on it. Actually, it did, as did the lives of everybody in that control room since a dramatic failure of the equipment at the wrong time could lead to an uncontrollable energy release that would vaporize everybody and everything present on the entire site. All the engineers and technical staff in the room knew that this whole development had been brought in with a minimum of funding, and the number of aged dials and other recycled material in the control room would quickly convince doubters. This meant that they were each afraid that somebody else had taken a shortcut, and it was the real reason that the three suits were kept as far away from the instrumentation as possible.
There was a small group of engineers who had complained that there had been insufficient testing of individual components but then again, there was always such a group. Of the three suits standing at the back of the room, the two older ones looked almost enthusiastic; they knew there were risks, but they also believed there were huge profits to be made if this succeeded. The third suit, David Sheldon, was a much younger man who simply looked out of his depth in the presence of such a massive engineering feat. He also looked as if, given a chance, he would run, even if he had no idea why or in which direction. Everybody knew that if anything went seriously wrong they would not survive, but on the other hand if the failure were of a minor nature they might live in extreme pain for some length of time before dying. To be in that room you had to be mad not to be nervous, but everybody tried, with varying degrees of success, to hide it.
The Chief Engineer looked around and called out, "Has anyone got a problem?"
Silence. Everybody had a problem, but it was not the sort of problem they could announce.
"Output readings?" While he would not know the exact values, he knew what they would be. This was simply to delay the decision for a minute or so.
"Central temperature, three-thirty K!"
"Kinetic: two milliwatt!"
"Wall: twenty-three microwatt!"
"How many billion dollars per watt?" someone muttered, to be rewarded with a number of nervous laughs.
"Intel! How secure is the power supply?"
"We can guarantee no terrorist interruption," a Colonel answered. There was a sense of pride in his voice, as if to say, 'I've done my job, and who the hell else could've done this!' He then added, "Water also secure."
There was a pause, then, "Water flow?"
There was another pause, then a nervous smile crossed the engineer's face. "Commence lasing."
About thirty seconds passed, followed by, "Lasers operating."
"Commence first stage muon flow!"
Another pause, then "Minimum muon flow inserted within spec."
"Insert deuterium at five per cent."
"Deuterium at five per cent!"
"Central temperature, twenty million K!"
There was a weak cheer. The system was firing up. The question now was, was it both controllable and useful?
"Central temperature, eighty million K!"
They had fusion.
"Kinetic: one hundred and eighty megawatt!"
They had power.
"Wall: nine hundred and eighty K. Thirty-four megawatt!"
It seemed to be working. For this brief time, they had the power of a star. It was what was termed the wall that was critical. One of the main problems with nuclear fusion was how to keep the temperature of the container low enough, while continuously passing sufficient mass to be useful. While the fields held the plasma well away from any solid surface, the radiant energy that must be emitted from material at such temperatures could not be prevented from striking the walls. If it were converted to heat, there was no way to remove that heat fast enough to permit the massive power outputs that nuclear fusion promised. The net result was that up to this point plants had been constructed that were massive, both in size and cost, for relatively trivial net power outputs. Power generation was possible, but not under any reasonable economic scheme. This plant did what no other one had attempted: to convert the radiant energy directly to electricity. There was still significant water-cooling required, but that thirty-four megawatt of electricity meant thirty-four megawatt of heat that did not have to be removed. There would also be further power generated from the steam, but that was of no interest to those in this room.
"Cease muon flow!"
"Muon flow ceasing on . . . Mark!"
There was a pause, then after twenty seconds, "Central temperature, ninety million K!"
There was a stronger cheer. They had self-sustaining fusion.
Five minutes passed, and in some ways the tension was both released and increased. Everything was stable; they had the most productive fusion plant ever built; however, it was only running at five per cent input.
"Right, team, this is where it gets interesting," the Chief Engineer said as he returned to staring at the dials. "Ramp it up to ten per cent."
"Ten per cent deuterium!"
Two minutes passed.
"Wall: stable one thousand and four K. Seventy-one megawatt."
A cheer burst out. The crew began dancing around, hugging one another. The Chief Engineer turned around and walked over to the two senior suits standing at the rear of the control room.
"I'll ramp it up to twenty-five per cent over the next hour, and assuming all goes well I'll hold it there, and after a day or two, progressively ramp it up further. We'll run continuously for a few months to check the lifetimes."
"Lifetimes?" one of the suits frowned.
"What the wall does is convert electromagnetic radiation to electricity but of course it isn't a hundred per cent efficient," the engineer explained. "Over time, we expect the efficiency to drop, partly as a function of neutrons that we can't scavenge, and partly just because, well, nothing lasts forever."
"How often do you have to stop it and check?" a suit asked.
"We don't," the engineer smiled. "As long as the wall temperature stays within operating constraints, and we have a real lot of leeway right now, we keep going."
"Can you estimate how long before a shut-down?"
"Not yet," the engineer replied, "but we'll get an idea when the wall starts to get less efficient. But I can tell you now, there'll be long times between maintenance. Basically, this solves the energy crisis."
"Oh yes. We doubled the power generation and the wall temperature barely moved. This thing's running like a dream and we're going to get well over four gigawatt when we ramp it up, and this would be only one module."
"Then tell the crew there'll be some big bonuses coming their way," one of the suits smiled. He shook the engineer's hand, and then the two suits began to walk away. David Sheldon, like an enthusiastic puppy, trotted along behind, anxious to grasp any spare information.
"Good news, that," the first suit smiled. "Pity we don't really own it."
The reason they did not own it was because it was the result of an international collaboration. All the design information was by contract to be disseminated amongst a number of participating countries.
"I wouldn't worry about that," the second suit shrugged. "The engineer was right. This is a game-breaker. This will eventually totally reverse the current economic problems."
That was true. Thanks to the depletion of the oil fields, energy had become extraordinarily expensive, which meant that general economic activity was greatly reduced. With rapidly diminishing taxation, debt-ridden governments had to default, which meant they could not borrow further, and in the absence of sufficient taxation, many of the various services they provided had to be abandoned. This was no simple pruning; governments could no longer fund pensions, education, health services, or even policing and the courts. In the resultant chaos, governance had collapsed other than in very limited zones. Greed led to some taking more than their share by force, force was returned, and a period of anarchy resulted, during which only too much of the valuable infrastructure was destroyed by terror-thefts, or even simple vandalism. Eventually the worst of this subsided, probably because most of the population could only manage basic survival. Many of the gated communities provided their own services, including law and order based on a user pays principle, albeit frequently policed privately. Those outside the gated communities lived as best they could, which usually meant every man for himself. There was total anarchy over most of the world, in which nobody appeared to be able to restore any order at all, except in isolated pockets where the people themselves imposed some variant on law and order. That variant usually meant, 'leave us alone or die.'
"You mean, governments and business will recover?"
"Not quite in that order, but yes, that will happen. As these plants get built, energy shortage will once again be a thing of the past."
"If these plants were all owned by one organization," the first suit mused, "they could make an enormous amount of money. They could just about charge what they wanted."
"I doubt it," the second suit shrugged. "To start with, nobody's got enough to pay for the output of these plants right now. It's only when the economies get going again that any wealth will be generated, and if anyone starts ramping up the prices then, it'd be the boys with the guns that make the money."
"So you're thinking . . .?"
"Lets put all the power plants in one major corporation. Let's call it EnergyBund. . . "
"It's German for alliance or league."
"You wish to soften the corporate connotations?"
"Yes. If anyone takes the trouble to dig, an alliance seems somewhat less menacing, and yes, bund may not generally refer to business, but that makes it even more suitable for our needs. Anyway, this entity owns all the fusion plants and probably all the other electrical generating plants and supplies electricity cheaply enough to let everybody have a decent income."
The first suit stood back and laughed a little towards him. "I didn't know you were such a socialist!"
"Of course I'm not," the second suit snorted. "You don't have to be a socialist to realize that the first priority is to provide an environment wherein the general population feel they can benefit by what's going on, even if only to some small extent, so they stop shooting at us so we can get on with making money the old-fashioned way."
"Trading and issuing financial products!" the first suit nodded.
"Exactly. Cheap energy means rapid expansion, which means a great expansion of stock, while we can create financial products to match it . . . "
"Matching it's a bit dry. Maybe for each product, but we can expand the number of products."
"Within reason, yes, but we have to be careful. This time it's different because there're too many people out there who've been living off violence. We have to get them to buy in, not suddenly realize they've been taken for a ride."
"Even if, in reality, they have," the first suit nodded.
"The trick is, they have to be left with enough to give them hope of better things to come, and if we are going to make a packet, we have to control the expansion sufficiently well that we make what we can through the financial products, then stop doing that and then make our money with what happens next."
"And you think that should be?"
"I think the best move will be to show people the virtues of being with EnergyBund."
"They can't all work there. Somebody has to . . ."
"You're not thinking!" the second suit slapped him on the back. "Look at it this way. EnergyBund is stable and doing well. Everybody else is up to their eyes in muck, so what should they do?"
"Form another corporation, or whatever you want to call it?"
"Close. That's what we'll do, and we start while it's unpopular, before the benefits of EnergyBund become too visible. That way we shall be seen as prophets, and more to the point, we can buy up what we need while it's still cheap. We work to get the corporation going, then sell out our holdings at a considerable profit."
"And we control these new corporations?"
"That won't be possible," the second suit said, as they reached the door leading to the car park. "What we can do, though, is act as financial intermediaries."
"Taking a cut," the first suit nodded, "thus making lots of money."
"Lots and lots of money," the second suit agreed, as they reached the car.
The car had obviously seen a lot of service. The wheels were almost completely hidden behind armoured flaps, to make it difficult for anybody to shoot out the tyres. The paintwork was highly speckled, each speckle being a pockmark where a bullet had stopped. The side windows had several whitish areas where bullets had struck the armoured glass and the glass had crazed. The front had angled bull-bars, designed so that protestors would be flung to one side. The paint had once been blue; now it was a strange streaky brown, apart from odd pieces of residual blue that had avoided the incendiary devices directed at the car. In short, it was a car; cars had rich people in them, therefore cars were targets, and this car had been struck many many times. On the other hand, it had survived each time.
The two older suits waved Sheldon away, informing him he could find some other way back. Sheldon slunk back with his non-existent tail between his legs while the two suits slipped into the back seats, then the driver started the motor. They eased towards the main wall and waited. A guard high on the wall gave a signal to indicate there were no known thieves outside, the gate opened, and the car left. It immediately accelerated to maximum speed and headed towards the gated town, and when it was clearly out of sight, Sheldon gave it a rude gesture with his finger. Along the way the car passed several patrols whose job was to intercept thieves, and two heavy vehicles that were designed to search for and neutralize bombs, and because of this additional security, the car continued on its way uninterrupted. Such was life around the world in twenty fifty-one.