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"I'm very taken by mythology. I read it at a very early age and kept on reading it. Before I discovered science fiction I was reading mythology."
- Roger Zelazny

Tensile Memory Polarized Matter  
  The same piece of material can take pre-determined shapes.  

"What," Rydra asked, "exactly is it?"

"What does it look like?"

"A - . . piece of rock."

"A chunk of metal," corrected the Baron.

"Is it explosive, or particularly hard?"

"It won't go bang," he assured her. "Its tensile strength is a bit over titanium steel, but we have much harder plastics."

Rydra started to extend her hand, then thought to ask, "May I pick it up and examine it?"

"I doubt it," the Baron said. "Try."

"What will happen?"

"See for yourself."

She reached out to take the dull chunk. Her hand closed on air two inches above the surface. She moved her fingers down to touch it, but they came together inches to the side - Rydra frowned.

She moved her hand to the left, but it was on the other side of the strange shard.

"Just a moment." The Baron smiled, picked up the fragment, "Now if you saw this just lying on the ground, you wouldn't look twice, would you?"

"Poisonous?" Rydra suggested. "Is it a component of something else?"

"No." The Baron turned the shape about thoughtfully. “Just highly selective. And obliging." He raised his hand. "Suppose you needed a gun"—in the Barons's hand now was a sleek vibra-gun of a model later than she had ever seen—'' or a crescent wrench.'' Now he held a foot long wrench. He adjusted the opening. "Or a machete." The blade glistened as he waved his arm back. "Or a small crossbow." It had a pistol grip and a bow length of not quite ten inches. The spring, however, was doubled back on itself and held with quarter inch bolts. The Baron pulled the trigger—there was no arrow—and the thump of the release, followed by the continuous pinnnnnng of the vibrating tensile bar, set her teeth against one another.

"It's some sort of illusion," Rydra said. "That's why I couldn't touch it."

"A metal punch," said the Baron. It appeared in his hand, a hammer with a particularly thick head. He swung it against the floor of the case that had held the 'weapon' with a strident clang. "There."

Rydra saw the circular indentation left by the hammerhead, Raised in the middle was the faint shape of the Ver Dorco shield. She moved the tips of her fingers over the bossed metal, still warm from impact.

"No illusion," said the Baron. "That crossbow will put a six inch shaft completely through three inches of oak at forty yards. And the vibra-gun—I'm sure you know what it can do."

He held it—it was a chunk of metal again—above its stand in the case. "Put it back for me."

She stretched her hand beneath his, and he dropped the chunk. Her fingers closed to grab it. But it was on the standard again.

"No hocus-pocus. Merely selective and . . . obliging."

He touched the edge of the case and the plastic sides closed over the display. "A clever plaything. Let's look at something else."

"But how does it work?"

Ver Dorco smiled. "We've managed to polarize alloys of the heavier elements so that they exist only on certain perceptual matrices. Otherwise, they deflect- That means that, besides visually—and we can blank that out as well—it's undetectable. No weight, no volume; all it has is inertia. Which means simply by carrying it aboard any hyperstasis craft, you'll put its drive controls out of commission. Two or three grams of this anywhere near the inertia-stasis system will create all sorts of unaccounted-for strain. That's its major function right there. Smuggle that on board the Invaders' ships and we can stop worrying about them. The rest—that's child's play. An unexpected property of polarized matter is tensile-memory." They moved toward an archway Into the next room. "Annealed in any shape for a time, and codified, the structure of that shape is retained down to the molecules. At any angle to the direction that the matter has been polarized in, each molecule has completely free movement. Just jar it, and it falls into that structure like a rubber figure returning to shape." The Baron glanced back at the case. "Simple, really. There"—he motioned toward the filing cabinets along the wall—"is the real weapon: approximately three thousand individual plans incorporating that little polarized chunk. The 'weapon' is the knowledge of what to do with what you have. In hand- to-hand combat, a six-inch length of vanadium wire can be deadly. Inserted directly into the inner corner of the eye, piercing diagonally across the frontal lobes, then brought quickly down, it punctures the cerebellum.

From Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany.
Published by Ace Books in 1966
Additional resources -

Learn about the shape memory effect - Nitinol (NIckel TItanium Naval Ordinance Lab) - discovered in 1959.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Babel-17
  More Ideas and Technology by Samuel R. Delany
  Tech news articles related to Babel-17
  Tech news articles related to works by Samuel R. Delany

Tensile Memory Polarized Matter-related news articles:
  - Shape-Memory Polymers Temperature Morphing
  - InfoChemistry And Self-Folding Origami
  - Spherical Soft Robots Use Shape Memory Alloys
  - Shape-Memory Metal Transforms Millions Of Times
  - MIT's aeroMorph Technology
  - How To Encode The 'Memory' Of Materials
  - Shape-Shifting Robot From MIT

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RUSSE Self-Healing Plastic Works Underwater
Pyrus, An Alternative Wood Made From Kombucha

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