The Mad Scientist had been on the fourth planet for over a year before Jerry and Arnold arrived. That made him the first living organism in the UV Ceti system, though not its first visitor. Two unmanned science probes had arrived half a century earlier from Sol, and had been devouring data on this violent star and its small planetary entourage ever since. Since their acquisition of human computer technology, the Centaurians had also sent out their share of unmanned interstellar probes, but never to this tiny neck of the woods — there was no need to fly light-years through interstellar space to study a flare star, with Proxima Centauri in their own back yard.
The Mad Scientist's new materials had only arrived a week before Arnold and Jerry did. In fact, he was still setting things up when Arnold took the first watch.
"Uh huh . . ." Arnold tracked the reflecting telescope a few hundredths of a degree to the left, "Uh huh . . . got him. There he is. He's just barely this side of the horizon."
Jerry looked up from a comic book. "Can I see him?"
"Sure," Arnold told him. "Doesn't look like he's doing much right now, though." He switched the 'scope's image onto the pressure-tent's only viewing screen.
Jerry furrowed his brow as he studied the image. "Yeah," he mused, "I think he's eating lunch. Or writing something. Hard to tell. Why couldn't we have just put a couple of low-orbiting spysats over the Mad Scientists head?"
"You couldn't put them 'over his head,' they'd only pass over him once per orbit."
"Not if you put them in synchronous orbit!" Jerry countered.
"Stationary orbital altitude for Namu is more than four times farther away than we are now. Besides, for us to receive pictures from spysats would mean they'd have to transmit those pictures to us, and as usual the Bureau is afraid someone might get hold of the stray signals."
"Oh, like those signals are going to be strong enough to pick up in another star system! Come on, spysats use tight-beamed broadcasts; stray signals get weaker than the background noise within a million klicks, and if you're close enough to pick those up you're close enough to set up your own telescope."
Arnold shrugged. "No one ever accused the SBI of being infallable decisionmakers."
"And that's another thing," Jerry continued his rant, "Why did the Head of SBI Strategic Surveillance order us to observe the Mad Scientist from this moon? Couldn't we have just parked the mothership in the same orbit, and observed him from onboard?"
"There, I agree with her," Arnold opined. "There's not enough elbow room inside the scramjet to observe without getting in each others' way. This pressure tent is a lot roomier. And before you say it, no, we couldn't just attach the pressure tent to one of the craft's airlocks and move the equipment in there. This surveillance gear is designed to work best when it can be braced against a solid, non-moving surface."
"Still, the radiation hazard from those flares," Jerry patted the Dosimeter patch on his coveralls, which would get darker the more ionizing radiation he absorbed.
"We'll be doing most of our observing at night," Arnold replied. "The Mad Scientist is on the lit side of the planet, which means UV Ceti will be below our horizon when he's visible."
"But there's an hour or two when we can still see him in daylight," Jerry noted. "Like right now. I'd think the mothership's hull would protect us from flares better than this flimsy tent."
"The scramjet's hull provides excellent protection against particulate radiation," Arnold informed him. "Against X-rays and gamma rays, it's no better than the pressure-tent. The best place to be when a flare's erupting is either the hibernation room on the scramjet, or" — he thumbed over his shoulder — "on the other side of that airlock, back in the Ascender. It's got pretty thick shielding."
"Hm," Jerry grunted. It looked like he'd be stuck living in this worst-of-both-worlds low gravity, which required all of the specialized, counterintuitive tricks of living in weightlessness, yet lacked the few advantages that true weightlessness would provide. "So, if it's lunch time for the Mad Scientist, what's on the menu for us?"
"Bread and water," Arnold only half-joked. He reached into a bin and pulled out a fistful of thin brownish ingots — wrapperless, since their survival out here depended on recycling every gram of waste — and fanned them like a hand of playing cards. "Hope you like meal bars. Want me to heat one up for you?"
"I . . . think I just lost my appetite," Jerry winced.
Arnold nodded. "You'll be hungry enough in . . ."
His voice trailed off. Jerry glanced around, puzzled. Was it his imagination, or was the sunlight getting brighter?
A loud, repeated beep butted in from the tent's main instrument panel, accompanied by a big flashing red light.
"Flare warning!" Arnold bolted upright. The reddish star on the horizon was turning progressively less and less red. "Into the Ascender. Leave the recording equipment out and running. It's all hardened against radiation, but we're not." He was on his feet and half way to the Ascender's hatch before Jerry could even get moving.
As Jerry clambered in from the outside, half-panicked, Arnold pulled the airlock's outer hatch shut. "It's not enough just to be out of direct starlight," he explained, "Hard X-rays get scattered by just a couple centimeters of air. The whole atmosphere of the pressure-tent will be glowing with X-ray haze in a few minutes. We'll need to keep this hatch closed until the flare passes."
"Are you sure we shouldn't secure the recording equipment?" Jerry worried.
"If it's radiation-hardened enough to record an antimatter bomb blast," Arnold reckoned, "It'll be more than tough enough to live through UV Ceti's flares."
Jerry glanced over at his Cronazza Heap poster. It was the only remotely interesting thing to look at inside the Ascender. "So, what's on the agenda while we're waiting it out in here?"
"Well," Arnold moved to the main window, "We're about to leave line-of-sight on the Mad Scientist for the day anyway. I don't know about you, but I've been awake since I got out of hibernation." He drew the curtains closed, then moved to his seatcouch. "It's time to hit the hay."
"Hay?" Jerry puzzled.
"Old farmer's expression. Went out of fashion before you were born. Before polymers or foam rubber or even bedsprings, people out in the country used to stuff their mattresses with dried grass — or just sleep on the hay directly. Nobody's really sure how the phrase got started any more." He pulled himself horizontal on his seatcouch and let his arms flop ever-so-slowly down to his sides. "Pleasant dreams!"
Jerry wasn't sleepy yet, but that was just the adrenalin talking. He knew as soon as the near-panic from the flare alarm had passed, he'd be zonked. He maneuvered awkwardly onto his own seatcouch — he still wasn't used to this damned almost-zero gravity — and tried closing his eyes. A wave of overwhelming grogginess overcame him almost instantly as his fatigue caught up with him and slammed into him like a sledgehammer.
Jerry awoke not long after. Arnold was still sleeping soundlessly in the neighboring seatcouch. Jerry shook his head; how anyone could sleep in such near-zero gravity was beyond him. Every time he rolled over, it felt like he was drowning.
Maybe he'd sleep better if he cleared his head. He peeked through the curtains covering the main window. The flare that had sent them into confinement had completely dissipated. Good. Time for a little stroll outside in the pressure-tent. He opened the hatch as quietly as he could, and pulled himself outside. UV Ceti was low on the horizon, hidden behind the Ascender's bulk; the blackness left in its absence let the stars blaze through the transparent tent roof in all their panoramic glory.
Jerry flattened himself against the ground as best he could in the super-low gravity, and gazed upward. The constellations didn't look that much different than they did from Earth. Orion was still the same wasp-waisted hunter, although Sirius and Procyon — normally nipping at his left heel and shoulder — had both moved far to his left and were now in Sextans and Leo, respectively. Sol was a respectable first-magnitude star nestled next to Arcturus. But Centaurus! The centaur was missing a front foot; Alpha Centauri had moved all the way over into Virgo, right next to Spica.
Where he'd really wanted to go.
He'd been fascinated with the Centaurians for as long as he could remember. Over a century-and-a-half ago — 161 years ago, to be precise — they and humans had had their first meeting, and the results were disastrous. It had been the Centaurians' very first venture outside the confines of their own triple-star system, in a spacecraft whose scramjet design was new and experimental even by Centaurian standards. And . . . we had panicked. Humanity's reaction to this event-to-end-all-events, this once-in-a-million-lifetimes first contact, had been to nuke them. The Centaurians had never seen an uncontrolled nuclear reaction before; the crust of Alpha Centauri A III lacked the heavy radioisotopes necessary to build runaway chain reactions. And as we later learned that, they had only been on guard for kinetic weapons. The ICBMs carrying the nuclear warheads up to meet them moved too slowly to be seen as an attack. Perhaps those first Centaurian visitors had thought the missiles were our way of saying hello.
Which, in their own disturbing way, they were.
He traced a line in the sky from Alpha Centauri to Sol with his finger. Just four point three light-years apart; practically next-door neighbors. Such close proximity would have scared the Centaurians terribly. Their proto-Centaurian ancestors were herbivores, herd creatures; they hunted not for food but for safety, tracking down and killing predators that threatened their clan. And they were quite good at it; by the time they'd started settling down in agrarian communities, not a single large predator existed on Alpha Centauri A III. The proto-Centaurians had hunted them all to extinction. The modern, starfaring descendants of those proto-Centaurians carried all the paranoid baggage of their ancestors, despite having conquered their own planet long ago. And now that we'd proven ourselves to be a threat, they'd have wanted to wipe us off the face of the galaxy, just like they'd done with every threatening species on their own homeworld.
They lived close enough to us that they could have easily retaliated with relativistic missiles sent from their homeworld. They'd developed interstellar scramjets even before they met us, capable of accelerating to 934 permil — nearly 93-and-a-half percent of the speed of light — by the time they reached Earth. Any object travelling that fast would do almost as much damage on impact as its own weight in antimatter. A single tiny spacecraft, weighing in at a scant 10 tonnes empty, could have been piloted straight into the Earth with a force equal to thirty-six times the antimatter used in the Mad Scientist's Phased Antimatter Bomb, and nothing would have been able to stop it. Up the empty mass to a respectable 2800 tonnes, and the impact energy would match the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Humankind would've been driven back into the stone age by a single kamikaze strike.
But "kamikaze" was the problem. The Centaurians' command of automation technology had been abyssmally bad before they met us. The spacecraft would have required a pilot to make mid-course corrections and drive that relativistic missile into the target. A living pilot. Risking death was one thing, but embarking on a mission of certain death was quite another. No Centaurian volunteered; even appealing to the Centaurian instinct to protect ones clan had failed. We had also been transmitting a message of apology to them using the primitive radio telescopes that existed on Earth's southern hemisphere at the time; although Centaurian scientists and linguists couldn't be sure, there was enough public suspicion that we were apologizing to divide even their leading Clan as to whether to wipe us out entirely, destroy only our technology, or leave us completely alone. In the end, they'd opted for a small fleet of hastily-constructed military spacecraft using the same scramjet design as the first, which finally arrived at Earth 14 years after our disastrous first contact.
Their intent, as we later discovered, was to scan the Earth for suspected missile launch sites, then wipe them out with kinetic slugs launched from onboard electromagnetic guns. They could then nudge a few local asteroids so that they'd hit the Earth some years later, after they'd crippled humanity's ability to deflect them. But scanning for launch sites took a while and required close proximity, and we'd had fifteen years to prepare for their assault. We had an enormous arsenal — it was much easier to refurbish left-over Cold War ICBMs than to build new missiles — and the moment the Centaurians fired at the first silo, we launched them all.
Of course, they were ready for us this time, too. Their point-defense batteries shot down nearly every one of our missiles before it got close enough to do any harm. Nearly every missile. Less than ten of our missiles got through their screen, but that was enough. Most of their fleet was either crippled or destroyed.
And then, as the survivors on each side stared each other down with what little was left of their forces . . . the unthinkable happened.
The Centaurians sent a descent pod down to an uninhabited spot in the middle of Canada, containing an illustrated dictionary and an analog recording of their language.
It took a while before we even had the courage to pry the pod open. For all we knew, it could have contained a nanobot plague. But eventually, to our growing amazement, we recognized the gesture for what it was. They wanted to talk. We responded with an illustrated English dictionary and several digital-optical discs — more to show off our digital superiority than from any notion we had that digital-optical technology would be easier to decode. We put this cargo in a single satellite, launched it a good distance away from their fleet, and parked it in a safe low Earth orbit, trying to make it look as non-threatening as possible. After a tense hour of inaction, the Centaurians at last sent one of their own reconaissance pods out to the satellite to retrieve its contents.
Learning their language was difficult enough, but actually using that language to talk to them seemed downright impossible. Not only did the sounds of their language require four mouths to make, not only did their vocabulary evolve from a species — and a world — whose main concerns were both different from ours and utterly unknown at the time, but the Centaurians had just tried to exterminate us without so much as entering Earth's atmosphere. They didn't know anything about our use of radiofrequency modulation, let alone our frequency band allocations or data protocols. Radio communications were out of the question. We tried flashing Morse code lights at their spacecraft, but either they couldn't figure these out or they were ill-equipped to respond. The only possible option was a face-to-face verbal meeting, and the Centaurians were rightly unwilling to send a representative down from orbit. Sending one of our representatives onboard one of their spacecraft was likewise out of the question, not only because we had no way of knowing how their docking and airlock technology worked or if they could interlock with ours at all, not only because we weren't even sure at the time that we could breathe the same air, but also because neither side wanted to take the chance that the other harbored some kind of bacterium that would wipe out the species. The threat of a nuclear warhead hidden aboard one of our "diplomatic" spacecraft hadn't escaped the Centaurians, either.
Our only hope was to put a volunteer aboard a small spacecraft with a window big enough for the Centaurians to see through, and to hope they would allow us to make physical contact with their hull in a manner that would conduct sounds. They responded with a small manned pod of their own, similar to the one that had met our gift-bearing satellite weeks earlier. Our clumsy attempts to string snippets of their recorded language together were completely botched and incomprehensible, but as luck would have it, our language was simple enough for them that it didn't matter. We negotiated for an armistice with them in plain old American English.
And after both sides had agreed to an uneasy ceasefire, the Centaurians left just as quickly as they had come.
But one of their crippled spacecraft had had to be abandoned in Earth orbit, its survivors having clambered aboard one of their few remaining good craft for the return trip. Its life support and weapon systems were wrecked, but the propulsion system was in pristine condition. Our engineers had been poring over every scrap of wreckage from the first visitor we'd nuked, and now this working proton-fusion engine gave us the final pieces of the puzzle. Humanity at last posessed Quantum Confinement-and-Constriction technology. The Age of Cheap Energy had arrived. Within the year, spacecraft using QC&C proton fusion were lifting a colony to the moon. Then a colony on Mars 4 years later, then the North Mars colony a year after that — the two Martian colonies went to war against one another shortly thereafter, until Earth intervened and took over both of them — and soon we were reaching for the stars.
Of all the technologies we'd stolen from the Centaurians over the decades, the Quantum Confinement-and-Constriction field was the most amazing, bordering on the miraculous. A single QC&C cell was practically self-sustaining once the up-front energy costs had been paid to establish it. A handful of subatomic particles could be confined inside it at any one time; put exactly two nuceli inside it, and the cell could constrict, forcing the nuclei into just about any quantum state you wanted. Want hydrogen to undergo nuclear fusion? Just put two hydrogen atoms into a QC&C cell and squeeze. The two hydrogen nuclei — protons — would be forced so close together they'd have no choice but to tunnel through the Coulomb barrier. Bingo, you've fused them into a deuterium atom and a positron with almost no energy losses. Sure, a single cell could only fuse one pair of protons at a time, but the Centaurian engines contained a massively-parallel array of trillions of submicroscopic QC&C cells, packed as tightly as the transistors on a computer microchip.
And why stop at proton fusion? If you built a second array of QC&C cells, you could take the deuterium you'd just produced and fuse it with itself, to make Helium-4. This yielded a lot more thermal energy that you could put to use; in fact, it yielded the lion's share of the engine's energy. Theoretically, you could add additional QC&C arrays and go on fusing past Helium-4 to get yet more energy — to Carbon, Oxygen, Neon, etc., all the way out to Iron, at which point you'd run into a kind of a wall where subsequent fusion would consume more energy than it produced — but with a spacecraft engine, you reached the point of diminishing returns at Helium-4. Each later step of the fusion chain produced progressively less and less energy; it simply wasn't worth the added weight and bulk of another QC&C array past that point.
But a QC&C field's greatest attribute was its ability to absorb a small amount of electromagnetic radiation — at any frequency — and turn it into useful electric energy with almost 100% efficiency. The gamma ray released by the second nuclear fusion step could be harnessed. The gamma rays released when the positron from the first fusion step annihilated with a stray electron could likewise be harnessed. All that energy could go directly into accelerating the fusion products until you were jetting them out the back of your spacecraft at a tenth of the speed of light.
It had its limits, of course. A given QC&C field could only absorb a few Watts of incident radiation — a reading lamp would be enough to overwhelm it. You couldn't use it to absorb your engine's prodigious thermal emissions and make your spacecraft "stealthy," nor could you sidestep the second law of thermodynamics by capturing all your blackbody radiation and turning it into useful electric energy. But, if you were willing to install a bulky array of emitters around your hull and invest the prodigious energy costs in throwing a QC&C field around your entire spacecraft, you could use it to absorb the small amount of incident radiofrequency radiation present in an enemy's radar sweep. In military circles, this was called Active Radar Absorption; you weren't invisible, but the enemy would have a much harder time locking its weapons onto you.
Not that military technology saw much use any more. Sirius's brief war for independence had been the last time Sol had fought anything resembling a real war. There hadn't been so much as a skirmish in the last 102 years.
"And yet, here we are," Jerry mumbled to himself as he gazed at Namu's reddish crescent above him, "Building a phased antimatter bomb."
The Flare Warning light beeped angrily from the nearby instrument panel again, breaking his reverie. The reflected glare from behind the Ascender grew noticeably brighter. Although the Ascender was between himself and UV Ceti, other parts of the pressure-tent weren't in the Ascender's shadow, and the air in the tent would bend X-rays around corners. Jerry sighed, pushed himself upright, threaded his way back into the ascender, and closed the hatch behind himself. The warning beeps had not woken Arnold. One more attempt at sleep . . . it was going to be a long couple of months.
The days dragged on. UV Ceti rose and set every 15 hours 6 minutes, with a noontime eclipse behind the planet each time. An entire trip around the star, though, took only 85-and-a-half hours. It didn't feel right that the "year" here was only six-and-a-half times the length of the "day," but that was the nature of life around a red dwarf. You had to hug the star that closely if you wanted to get enough light and warmth to run around without artificial heating.
During the night hours, when more of Namu's lit side showed than its dark side, Arnold and Jerry took turns watching both the Mad Scientist and the seemingly-chaotic heap being assembled down on the planet's surface. The latter grew slowly larger with each passing day. The Mad Scientist had a small army of robots at his disposal, courtesy of the SBI, who were putting together the monstrous Phased Antimatter Bomb according to his exacting specifications.
Weeks passed. Boredom became Jerry's greatest enemy. It was hard enough to sleep on a 15-hour-6-minute cycle, let alone one in which there was no real exertion or adventure to sleep off. Three of those monotonous meal bars were the only sensation his palate received during his waking hours. Sure, they contained every macronutrient and micronutrient a human body could possibly need — not to mention a healthy dose of Binder Mix ZG, the chemical cocktail that prevented bone and muscle loss in microgravity — but couldn't the Bureau have packed at least some variety of flavors into those things?
Worse, with each passing day a niggling doubt tugged ever harder at the back of his mind. Something hadn't sat right with Jerry about this mission ever since he'd listened to their orders. He wanted to get it out in the open, to stop bottling it up in his gut; but the more he learned about Arnold, the more he worried about how Arnold might react. Finally, during one of Arnold's watches, Jerry finally decided he couldn't wait any more. He took a deep breath, hoping to breach the subject slowly.
"So . . ." Jerry began tenatively, "The Mad Scientist's former successes aside, this . . . this whole Phased Antimatter Bomb project . . . well, it's huge. I mean, 250 kilograms of positrons . . . that's a gigantic investment for Sol to make."
"Mmmm hmmm?" Arnold cocked an eyebrow as he continued to stare at the screen, wondering what his compatriot was getting at.
"So, I mean why . . . I mean, sure, there's a good chance it'll work given the Mad Scientist's track record and all, but come on — the guy's got 'mad' in his name, for crying out loud. If his theories are wrong this time, a third of Sol's positron stockpile is going to go poof. Why do you think Sol's taking such an enormous economic risk?"
Arnold shrugged. "Hadn't thought about it much, really. If it works, Sol's got a weapon powerful enough to blast apart any invading fleet before it could get close enough to do any harm."
"Or blast away half the atmosphere of any developed planet," Jerry opined.
Arnold narrowed his gaze and glanced sidelong at his companion. "Uh . . . huh," he half-growled.
Jerry clicked his teeth with his tongue. "Look, you've read the Henderson speech, haven't you?"
"Who hasn't?" Arnold looked him squarely in the eye. "There's not a man or woman alive who didn't, at some point in his or her life — however brief that point might have been — believe in the Henderson Doctrine."
Jerry swallowed a hard lump in his throat. "Yeah, me too, okay? I'm not exactly proud of that period in my life."
"Look, Sol might be a bully from time to time," Arnold went on, "But we're not monsters. Yes. If this Phased Antimatter Bomb lives up to the Mad Scientist's hype, then we could blast an entire planet back into the stone age. But it's the threat of doing such a thing that makes a nation strong, not the actual doing. Deterrence, that's the key force in any nation's military. It kept ancient Rome from being attacked for hundreds of years, it kept the United States at the top of the food chain for nearly a century, and it's what'll keep Sol united, and strong, and safe, and prosperous."
"Wait," Jerry wagged a finger, "The United States? They weren't number one because they were the only country with nuclear arms, they were number one because they had more nukes than their rivals. If the Soviet Union hadn't developed nuclear weapons of their own, there's a damn good chance the U.S. would have used that 'deterrent' at some point. They'd started building nuclear anti-ship weapons, nuclear anti-personnel battlefield weapons, and even nuclear air-to-air missiles. It was only the threat of escalation, of mutual annihilation, that kept each side from going nuclear on the other."
"And Rome?" Arnold countered. "They had the biggest army in the world, and some of the most advanced weapons. There was no 'cold war' where Rome was concerned; no other country had the slightest hope of standing up to them. And under their rule, they brought a peace that lasted two centuries."
"In case you haven't noticed, we haven't had a war in over a century either. But not because Sol has the rest of populated space under its thumb — I'd say all five nations are about equally well-armed right now. The only reason they aren't at each other's throats is because interstellar travel is so slow and expensive. So why is Sol taking an interest in the Phased Antimatter Bomb now?
Arnold looked at him scoldingly. "Because the Mad Scientist didn't think of it until now."
"Okay, there's that," Jerry admitted, mulling it over. Then: "Lemme ask you this, though: How many of the Mad Scientist's ideas has the SBI not elected to pursue?"
Arnold put his head in his hand condescendingly, as though the answer were obvious. But slowly, his look melted into one of bewilderment as he searched for the answer himself. "Actually . . . I don't know. All the proceedings are classified; the details are let out only on a need-to-know basis. Rejected proposals would be something that no agent would ever need to know."
Jerry glanced up at the scramjet that had brought them from Sol, as it orbited by lazily overhead. "Remember when you said that Sirius had grown too big for Sol to retake it? Maybe they chose the Phased Antimatter Bomb to try and 'fix' their past 'mistake.' Maybe they want to retake Sirius now."
Arnold mulled it over. "Not likely. We haven't heard a peep out of Sirius in a long time. If anything, Sol is more worried about Alpha Centauri. Every few years, we find another one of their spy satellites wandering through Sol space, some of which have been there for a century or more."
Jerry looked at him squarely. "Alpha Centauri."
Arnold rolled his eyes again. "No. They're not going to carry out the Henderson Doctrine. They're not going to send a fleet of scramjets carrying Phased Antimatter Bombs to Alpha Centauri A III and raze the surface of the planet, out of fear that the Centaurians might do something similar to us. Heck, just the logistics of such an operation would be nightmarish, to say nothing of its odds of success — it'd take all the positrons in Sol's posession just to make two more bombs, and they'd have to get close enough to set them off without A-III's defenses shooting them down. Even if we succeeded, making A-III uninhabitable is a far cry from wiping out the Centaurian species. And can you imagine the public backlash?"
"I can imagine what our next move would have to be," Jerry said. "None of the other three nations would trust us not to do it to them. So, they'd have to do it to us first. And we'd know it. So our only hope would be to do it to them before they did it to us — their fear that we'd do it to them would become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Only we wouldn't be able to do it to them," Arnold countered. "We wouldn't have the resources, not at first."
"So they'd get off the first shot."
"They wouldn't have the resources either. They don't have Phased Antimatter Bombs yet. And before you say it, any incoming spacecraft moving fast enough to do serious kinetic damage can be detected and shot down before it even reaches the orbit of Neptune."
"And what if we managed to keep the Phased Antimatter Bomb a secret long enough to build up a huge stockpile of positrons? Then Sol could sterilize the surface of every inhabited planet outside of its sphere of influence — Alpha Centauri A III, Sirius A IV, CN Leonis II, maybe even the whole Human-Centauri habitat ring."
"Oh, come on," Arnold chided him, "This is just idle speculation. We don't even know if the Phased Antimatter Bomb works yet." He focused his attention back on the screen, turning his back on Jerry.
But Jerry remembered what Arnold had said about the Mad Scientist when they'd first arrived: "Every big idea he's undertaken has worked out — every single one of them."
Beneath Namu's thin blanket of hydrocarbon air, standing comfortably at 1/3 g in his pressure suit, the Mad Scientist glanced up from his scribbling to spot-check his robotic peons' progress. They were nearly finished. Good — back to scribbling. He wore his nome de guerre as a badge of honor, for "Mad Scientist" was more than a mere hearkening back to some old movie archetype. He really was mad. His sanity teetered on the brink of outright schizophrenia. It was what gave him his edge. He'd been taking semi-regular injections of hormones to ensure that he wouldn't lose that edge as he got older.
True, it came with a price. The SBI would never trust him with spacecraft piloting duty, which was why nearly all of his supplies — not merely the volatile antimatter, but all the mundane stuff like his diagnostic gear and robotic assemblers and spare parts as well — had come on that separate unmanned flight. It wasn't really fair, though; he was a competent pilot and had demonstrated many times before that he could remain rational for long stretches at a time. He had an uncanny ability to focus when he needed to. He could literally will himself sane.
Though they might think he was having an episode if they saw him outdoors like this, a good walking distance from his ground car. One sudden flare eruption from UV Ceti, with no shielded transport to duck under, and he'd use up his radiation dosage budget for the rest of the year. He liked being out in this barren, rock-strewn expanse, though. He could stare at the horizon for hours, letting the cares of the world melt away from him, before he scrambled back to work with his usual overexcited pitch. And gazing above the horizon, the reddish-tan atmosphere was thin enough that he could make out the brighter stars even with the constant daylight. They were comforting reminders of the vast scale of the stage he was on, and of how small his achievements and blunders truly were. And of how little it mattered that, due to the government's secrecy over his work, the long-running Nobel Prize in Physics would never be his.
Oh! And speaking of the stars, one particularly bright object had parked itself into orbit around the moon and then gone dark not too many weeks ago. That would be the spies the SBI always sent to keep an eye on him. He'd been too engrossed in an engineering diagram he'd been drawing at the time to pay them any notice. They must have set up shop on the moon by now, and were probably watching him this very moment. He found the moon just a few degrees off from directly overhead, pointed his faceplate straight at it, and waved a friendly hello.
He tittered to himself, imagining their groans of recognition up there. But their reaction to this would be even funnier. He switched on his helmet's transmitter. "Penelope," he said, addressing the S.I. in the nearby pressure-bunker, "Open a tight-beam transmission to the landing site on the moon up there."
Two seconds later, a small heads-up display projected on the inside of his helmet's faceplate read "Transmitting. Press END to terminate."
"Hello, boys! Or are you girls this time?"
He could barely keep from breaking up into giggles. They must be having a hissy-fit up there. Some seconds later, a bright green light from the moon's surface began pulsing on and off. He instantly recognized it as Morse code. Impressive! There weren't many people who remembered he could decode Morse on the fly. The message read: "FOR OUR SAKES, COULD YOU PLEASE MAINTAIN RADIO SILENCE? YOU KNOW THE RULES. OVER AND OUT."
"Arnold!" the Mad Scientist shouted gleefully into his helmet mike. "Nice to know it's you again! Okay, I'll play nice. Shutting off." He pressed the END key on his left wrist, switching off both his mike and the bunker's radio transmitter.
He gazed lovingly at the monument to his genius that his robots were erecting. His latest brainchild, the Phased Antimatter Bomb, was nearly assembled. It was a massive heap, 25 meters on a side, consisting of nearly a hundred million hockey-puck-sized containment units. Conduits ran from each unit in a precise interleave, all feeding into a single eight-meter "lens" off to one side. It was nice to see this old invention come to fruition, but all his theoretical work on that had been completed so long ago that it no longer held his interest. His scribbling of late had been for his next big project. A year alone with nothing but a semi-intelligent pressure-bunker and a few sketchpads for company had given his creativity the room it needed. And now, his request that his handlers send along a wide assortment of spare parts had paid off. There were three other inventions he'd built while the bomb assembly work had been underway, one of which held greater theoretical import — at least to him — than any other thing he'd done before. And they were all small enough to fit inside his pressure-bunker, away from prying eyes.
But his next Great Leap Forward could wait. Today was the detonation test.
He walked back to his ground car, and drove up to the massive Phased Antimatter Bomb for one last visual inspection. He had to keep his distance, though; each tiny containment unit held a million coulombs of unbalanced electric charge. They were interleaved like a 3-dimensional checkerboard, so that each positron container was surrounded by six electron containers and vice-versa; at a distance the entire structure was electrically neutral. But up close, the tiny static-electric charge on his own pressure-suit might be enough to rip the suit apart. He'd have to drive around this 25-meter heap with at least another 30 meters of clearance. By the time he'd made his slow inspection all the way around, the robots should be finished.
Of course, "safe distance" was a relative term. He'd be safe from the electrostatic forces at this distance, assuming each containment unit was fully loaded and there had been no mistakes assembling the interleave pattern. But, if containment power failed on even one of the positron units, the gamma ray blast would be enough to cause cascade failure of its neighbors, resulting in a slow ten-gigaton detonation as the whole shebang disintegrated. Not even his reinforced pressure-bunker would survive such a blast. He wasn't worried, though; humanity had been storing antimatter for over a century now, and the failsafes that had been built into modern containment units were legion. He pressed a key on his wrist, and navigated a short heads-up-display menu until a pair of tuned binoculars popped down over his helmet visor. It was the only way to get a close look at the assembled bomb from his drive-around distance. He made quick surveys of cluster after cluster of the magnetic feed lines that would send the leptons from their containment units to the lens, tied together in alternating layers of black-labelled electron and red-labelled positron conduits. He carefully scrutinized the rim of the lens assembly, looking for any stray feed lines that entered from the wrong direction. It had to be all black lines on one side and all red lines on the other, or else phased annihilation couldn't take place. Likewise, the feed triggers on each containment unit had to all be wired together perfectly, so that the ones farthest from the lens would open first and the ones closest to it would open a fraction of an instant later.
At last, he smiled with giddy excitement. It all looked perfect. It was time. He wheeled across the rocky landscape 'til he reached the pressure-bunker, stepped through the airlock, took off his helmet, and drew the tinted shades.
"Penelope," he announced, "Start the countdown."
Arnold had been perusing one of Jerry's comic books, still shaking off his frustration at the Mad Scientist's complete violation of Bureau protocol, when the telltale arrived. He gasped in excitement as three short pulses of green light flared on his monitor from the Mad Scientist's base. "This is it!" he barked. "The five-minute warning! The Mad Scientist is about to test the Phased Antimatter Bomb. Jerry! Wake up all the observing equipment and set it all to the maximum data capture rate. Then, turn on anything else you can think of that the rest of us might've missed. We're going to have one shot at this, and we need to get as much data as possible from it."
Jerry leapt into action as fast as he could in the ultra-low gravity. Months of boredom melted away in a heartbeat as he switched on miniature radio telescropes, gamma ray photon counters, particle counters, ultraviolet and X-ray cameras, magnetic field meters — everything that could be brought to bear on the point on Namu's surface where the telescope was aimed.
"Can't think of anything else," Jerry commented as the last detector went live. "All the data recorders are running at full tilt. Whatever happens in the next ten minutes, we'll have a copy of it."
"Okay," answered Arnold. "As senior agent on this mission, I hereby . . . get to look through the telescope."
Jerry snorted. That would suit him just fine. The scope monitor showed everything the telescope saw, anyway, without having to close one eye and crane your head over it.
They waited out the few minutes to detonation in silent anticipation.
In his bunker, the Mad Scientist listened raptly to the faint, feminine voice of the S.I. counting down the last minute. Even though his bunker couldn't withstand a complete uncrontrolled antimatter blast at this distance, the bomb would be releasing all of its energy in a gamma ray beam pointed elsewhere. Of course, this would dump an enormous amount of energy into the atmosphere as it blasted its way out into space. The aerial shock and heat waves would be substantial. It was because of these that the bunker had been reinforced as sturdily as it was.
Ten seconds to go. His breathing quickened in excitement. There was absolutely no way this could fail. Everything had checked out, in theory as well as in practice. A phased antimatter annihilation would result when the bomb went off. The annihilation plane would spread out from the lens to some 200 meters in diameter, and it would give off a shaft of coherent gamma rays just that wide. The only thing he couldn't predict with absolute certainty was which side of the device the gamma ray burst would shoot out from. The odds were 9 in 10 that the reaction would shoot out from the positron side of the explosive lens; so, he'd oriented the lens with the red-labelled side pointing straight up.
This was one time the Mad Scientist guessed wrong.
As the count hit zero and matter met antimatter in precisely timed sequence, a 200-meter-wide shaft of gamma rays, each photon in phase with the next, thundered out of the device's lens and straight into the ground. The light pressure alone bucked the 8-meter lens straight upward in the split-microsecond before it evaporated. The thin hydrocarbon air turned straight to plasma and underwent thermonuclear fusion. All rock within seven kilometers of the beam vaporized. Half a klick and a few milliseconds away, the ground shock and heat waves overwhelmed the tiny pressurized bunker housing the Mad Scientist and blew it to incandescent fragments. For the briefest instant, before the atoms of his body joined their indistingushable brethren in the inferno, the Mad Scientist realized he wasn't going to get to test his Zero Drive.
And 6600 kilometers straight down, the same 200-meter-wide shaft of gamma rays erupted from the other side of the planet and lanced out into deep space.
Even through his telescope's leaded solar filter, Arnold's field of view flashed to a steady blinding white. Jerry's scope monitor likewise turned highest-white with no detail visible. Both SBI agents tore their attention away from their close-ups to peer out the main window, to view Namu without magnification. The point on the planet's surface where the device had gone off was now a blazing disc several kilometers across. Around it, a compressed ring of atmosphere expanded outward like a concentric ripple on a pond, sending the ionized carbon and hydrogen atoms of what had once been short-chain hydrocarbons into space and leaving a vacuum in its wake. At the speed this shock wave was travelling, the whole atmosphere of the planet would be stripped away in a matter of minutes.
But far worse was a wide, glowing red ring surrounding the white blast disc that crept ever wider. Jerry grabbed the telescope's contols and pointed it a fraction of a degree away from ground zero. Through the scope's magnification, the red ring appeared as incandescent, fissured rock. Jerry pointed the scope farther away, so that it pointed just inside the main shock wave, and his fears were realized. This new section of ground, hundreds of kilometers away from ground zero, was also cracking into widening fissures. The entire surface of the planet was crumbling.
"Look!" Arnold pointed, showing genuine alarm for the first time since Jerry had met him. "On the far side!"
The ghost of a tail protruded from behind the planet, its base apparently thousands of kilometers closer but hidden by the planet's bulk. "The device was supposed to release all its energy in a coherent beam," Arnold reasoned. "That spike must be the beam coming out the other side."
"It . . . it went all the way through?!" Jerry stuttered.
At that moment, the shock wave from the beam leaving the far side of the planet rounded into view. "Yeah," Arnold mumbled in awe.
"Then," began Jerry, "The damage that's happening on the planet's surface —"
"Is happening all the way through its interior too," Arnold finished his sentence.
As the two airborn shockwaves met and sent the remains of Namu's atmosphere into space, Jerry aimed the telescope at an arbitrary point on the planet's surface far away from the blast point. The surface there was developing fissures, too. And a hot red glow emanated from those cracks. Arnold saw the scene on the scope monitor and winced. "That shaft running all the way through the interior, ten or fifteen klicks wide, turned straight from solid into hot gas. The pressure . . . it's turning Namu inside-out."
"But ... but how?!" Jerry asked, incredulous. "Half a tonne of matter and antimatter will only give you around ten Gigatons worth of explosive energy. Coherent beam or not, it's not gonna be enough to vaporize that much rock!"
Arnold rubbed his chin, his gaze fixed intently on the screen. Then: "Fusion."
"Thermonuclear fusion," Arnold continued. "That beam is hotter than the interior of a supernova. It'll make any material it comes in contact with hot enough to undergo fusion. Not just light stuff like hydrogen — everything, carbon, oxygen, silicon, you name it. I'm sure Namu's made mostly out of silicates — an oxygen or silicon fusion reaction won't produce very much net energy, but it can produce enough to keep a kind of 'chain reaction' going inside the planet, fusing more oxygen and silicon and releasing even more energy."
"My God . . ." Jerry whispered. "The whole planet. . . ."
From ground zero, huge chunks of the surface — some incandescent — were already flying off into space at every possible angle. One of those chunks doubtlessly used to be the ground on which the Mad Scientist had been huddled in his bunker. The "exit wound" on the other side of the planet was likely undergoing the same transformation. Namu was peeling itself apart layer by layer, working from the two sites inward. In a matter of hours, maybe sooner, there wouldn't even be a planet left.
"We're awfully close," Jerry worried. "This moon we're on orbits just ten thousand klicks away. Could any of that debris hit us? Or the scramjet?"
Arnold focused on one of the chunks and traced its motion with his finger. "Not the big pieces, at least. They're moving too slowly. Some of the tinier fragments might have enough energy to hit us, though. We'd better get in our compression suits, in case there's a meteor shower."
Jerry was already suiting up before he'd said it. The suit was a spandex polymer, which provided pressure against the vacuum by constriction rather than actual air pressure. They were much easier to put on and move around in than their inflated counterparts, whose constant-volume joints ratcheted and popped with every gesture. "And what about the mothership?"
"Meteorite impacts are no problem for that hull," Arnold reassured him as he began pulling on his suit. "It's got a Whipple shield; there's an outer layer, a vacuum gap, and an inner layer. If anything does hit that spacecraft hard enough to blow through the outer layer, it'll just explode in one spot; the inner layer'll be unharmed."
Arnold continued to review the incoming data as he secured his gloves. Such spandex gloves were very tight, but didn't hinder the fingers. "Keep the recorders running," Arnold said somberly. "Some of this might be impor— . . ." He trailed off, furrowing his brow. "This can't be right."
"Mm?" Jerry asked.
"The high-speed gamma counter," Arnold replied. "When the gamma ray beam first struck the air, before it hit the ground, some of the gamma rays would have been scattered. Since we know how thin the atmosphere was and what it was made of, we know how much scattering there should have been in that first instant. Given our distance from ground zero, we know how many of those scattered gamma ray photons should have struck the counter. But the counter recorded only half that many photons — almost exactly half."
"Was it because the beam went down instead of up?" Jerry wondered.
"No, that wouldn't account for it. This initial scattering happened in the first few centimeters of the beam's travel. The explosive lens being between us and the beam wouldn't have made a difference either, since the scattering was omnidirectional. It's almost as though half the energy that should have been in that beam just . . . wasn't there."
Jerry looked back up at where the Phased Antimatter Bomb had gone off. So much of Namu had already been blown away that he couldn't tell where ground zero had been any more. A veritable cloud of debris shrouded what was left of the planet, each piece in its own orbit. If this disintegration continued, Namu would be an asteroid field instead of a planet. "Do you have any idea where in this mess," Jerry gestured at the distant floating rocks, "Ground zero used to be?"
"No problem," Arnold answered, pressing a button near the telescope marked "Home." The scope tracked itself back to the precise coordinates it had been set to monitor before the detonation, showing a close-up of the destruction on the screen. "Not much to see there any more, I'd think."
There was no planetary surface in the telescope's field of view. Only rocks and dust remained, now drifting lazily by. It was impossible to tell distance or scale; any rock might have been a fast-moving million-tonne boulder far away or a slow-moving pebble close up. No radar sweep would be able to pick out the targets fast enough for the scope to use the data. But there was something strange about the scene, something that picked at Jerry's awareness as an absurdity. Then, he saw it.
"Whoa!" Jerry pointed. "Back that video up a few seconds, then slow-mo forward."
"Uh, okay," Arnold wondered what his parter was getting at.
Jerry watched the scene again as it played out one flickering frame at a time. "Hold it right there," Jerry reached for the video controls, pressing Pause and then single stepping back and forth until he found it. "Did you see that?" he pointed at the dead center of the screen and jogged a few frames back and forth again.
Arnold gasped. "Yeah. That rock disappeared."
"And look at where it disappeared. There are a lot fewer rocks showing in that little slice of sky than there are anywhere else in the frame."
Arnold nodded. Jerry was right. A little oval-shaped patch of black space was almost totally devoid of the specks of light that littered the rest of the scene. Jerry jogged the recording forward a frame at a time. "And there!" A bright chunk popped into view right next to the sparse oval region. "That looks like the same rock that disappeared a few frames ago."
"Go back," Arnold instructed. Jerry did. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. It is the same rock! That patch of sky must have something jet-black in it that the rock passed behind. Let's go back to the present." He brushed Jerry's hands away from the video controls and pressed the "now" key. The sparser oval was still there, and every so often, another rock would disappear behind it and re-emerge a moment later. Arnold worked another set of controls, but the readout next to them just made him shake his head. "Rock, rock, rock . . . ugh. The radar's only picking up rocks there. I'm not getting any echoes off the black thing, whatever it is." He checked another display. "No thermal infrared, either. Hell, no radiation at any frequency. If it were a solid object, we should be getting some kind of blackbody radiation off of it."
"Assuming it's not at absolute zero temperature," Jerry noted.
Arnold snorted. "If you can find me anything in the universe that's exactly zero Kelvin, I'll notify the Nobel committee on Earth."
Without warning, Jerry lunged for the video controls again, nearly losing his balance in the ultra-low gravity. "That last rock," he backstepped the paused video furiously, "It didn't re-emerge!"
"Huh?" Arnold puzzled.
"Look!" Jerry pointed, his hands shaking as he stepped back and forth through a scene that had happened less than a minute ago. "This rock here, it disappeared behind the black area, right?" He jogged back, getting a feel for how quickly the rock had been flying left-to-right across the frame, then stepped forward. "It should have come back out by this point. It didn't! It went behind the black area and never came back out!"
"Or," Arnold leaned forward, "It went into the black area and never came back out." He tapped the frame-back button himself, getting to the exact frame where the rock disappeared. "Look at that," he traced a finger on the screen, "The right edge of the rock is missing." He stepped back to the previous frame, then forward to the culprit frame again to show the difference. In the following frame, the rock was gone entirely.
"Oh my . . what the . . ." Jerry reeled. "Was that a video recording error, or some imperfection in the scope?"
"Nope, that spot in the scope's field was recording everything else at that point with damn near perfect fidelity. That black oval shape just ate the rock."
Jerry shook his head in bewilderment. "I wish we knew how far that thing was from us."
Arnold snapped his fingers. "I know how to find out!" He worked the radar controls again, sweeping the area over and over and sifting through the data. "We can't see any rocks behind it. That means the radar can't get echoes from any rocks behind it either."
"I thought there were too many rocks moving too fast to be able to track them."
"We don't have to track them," Arnold explained. "All we need to do is take a bunch of snapshots of how far any rocks are from us." He massaged the data into a 3-dimensional composite of all the radar sweeps. "There! The whole region's filled with radar echoes, except for this one narrow shadow. That'll be where the radar couldn't get any data. And the farthest rock that's in front of that shadow is . . ." he touched the display to label the echo he wanted ". . . just a hair over 10,500 kilometers away."
Arnold scratched his head, then gasped. "Given how much the planet would have rotated since the detonation, that's almost exactly where ground zero would be!"
"So that black oval shape is probably at ground zero?" Jerry wondered.
Arnold scanned the instruments one more time, his breathing quickening. Then, emphatically: "We've gotta get a closer look at that thing."
Jerry sat up with a start. "I thought you said the observing equipment was designed to work on a flat surfa—"
"Not the recorders. Us. Up close and personal. Get into the Ascender, we're leaving." Arnold bounded toward the Ascender's hatch.
"What?! With the planet still spewing debris not ten thousand klicks away? I mean, shouldn't we at least get video footage of the rest of the breakup process?"
"We can leave the pressure-tent here," Arnold beckoned Jerry from inside the Ascender, "All the equipment'll keep recording. We'll come back for it after we've had a close look at that black shape."
"M-maybe I should stay behind, in case —"
"Nonsense! Come on, this might be the find of a lifetime!"
"Hoo boy," Jerry shook his head as he made his way to the Ascender. "I should've taken that domestic translator job instead."
Arnold yanked the outer hatch shut the instant Jerry came through it. He'd already triggered the main engine's startup sequence, and was now programming what looked to be an intercept course. "Strap in!" he barked with excitement as the engines' hum increased.
Jerry had a sinking feeling that they were skipping an awful lot of pre-flight safety checks, but what could he do? He pushed himself into his seatcouch, clicked the harness into place, and hoped Arnold knew what he was doing.
Arnold threw the toggle for the inner airlock door, which slid into place on its own, then threw himself into his own seatcouch as four rapid "clacks" accompanied the engine's growing hum. The four piton lines that had secured them to the moon's surface were now flopping loose on the rock. The opening in the pressure-tent that had been mated with their hatch for so many weeks sealed itself shut, trapping the air and running equipment within — along with the comic book Jerry had been re-reading. And at last, the background hum dropped the two octaves that indicated engine readiness.
"Up," Arnold chanted as he hit the wide Engage panel. The main proton-deuteron engine boomed to life. "And out!"
The ascender quaked in the engine's din and both occupants sank into their seatcouches. "Nyurgh!" Jerry moaned under his new weight, "How many g's . . . nyargh! . . . did you set it for?!"
"Seven!" Arnold yelled over the thunderous roar.
"I throttled it back for you," Arnold explained. "I usually like to pull nine!"
"Aaargh!" Jerry groaned. "I . . . hate . . . ascents! I hate ascents, I hate ascents, I hate ascents I hate ascents I hateascentsIhateascentsIhateascents!!"
Jerry strained to roll his head toward the main window. The starry blackness outside didn't shift, despite the crushing forces driving them upward. After two-and-a-half agonizing minutes, the hellish thrust finally cut itself off, leaving them in freefall. They hurtled toward the planet's surface — or rather, where its surface had once been — at a brisk 10 kilometers per second. Outside, tiny pebbles and grains of the planet's former crust whizzed by them, occasionally grazing the conical outer hull. The debris grew slowly, steadily thicker.
"Um . . ." Jerry worried, "You said the scramjet had a Whipple shield protecting it from meteorites. What about this Ascender? We're getting a lot closer to the debris than the mothership is."
Arnold stared blankly for a few seconds, then quipped, "Well, nothing that's hit us so far has been moving fast enough to damage us."
Oh dear, Jerry thought.
After ten minutes of nerve-wracking plunk and zing noises, Arnold flipped the Ascender around and reignited the main engine. This time, mercifully, the thrust was only four g. Perhaps their coasting time had cured a little of Arnold's impatience. After four-and-a-quarter minutes pressed into their seatcouches, the engine once again subsided to its low standby hum, and —
"Here we are," Arnold noted as he powered the engine down completely and rotated to point the main window at ground zero.
"Whoa," Jerry stared as he drifted free of his seatcouch. They were close enough to see it with the naked eye, but just barely. A tiny sliver of blackness obscured the stars behind it. This close, there was a lot less debris obscuring their line of sight. "It's . . . it looks a lot narrower than it did on the monitor."
"I noticed," Arnold said with a wicked grin. "I'm betting we're seeing it edge-on. I'm going to spiral in a little closer so that we can see it from another angle." A few bursts jetted from the translation thrusters.
"Is it dangerous?" Jerry worried.
Arnold raised his eyebrows. "You saw what it did to the rock that hit it.
Jerry suppressed a shudder.
As they circumnavigated the black mote, its aspect changed. It grew wider and rounder until it was a complete circle, then it grew steadily narrower until it disappeared entirely, only to reappear as a thin, growing sliver an instant later. "No doubt about it," Arnold noted, "It's a circular disc, about 200 meters across. It looks jet-black on both sides." He stared at one of his instruments. "It's not putting out any blackbody radiation, not in the thermal infrared at least. The detectors on this little Ascender don't cover the full spectrum like the ones back in our pressure-tent, though." He typed a command at the Ascender's keyboard with his gloved hands, focusing the radar emitter on the black disc. "And no radar echoes; just like we saw from ten thousand kilometers away."
They continued to close in until the disc, face-on now, was less than 20 kilometers distant. It covered as much of the sky as UV Ceti did behind them. UV Ceti . . . thankfully, the flare warning on the Ascender's panel was serenely quiet. Jerry was glad they didn't have to deal with meteorites and stellar flares at the same time.
"It won't reflect radar," Arnold mulled, "And it's not reflecting any visible light from our red dwarf sun here," he thumbed over his shoulder at where UV Ceti was. "We also don't appear to be falling toward it, so if it has gravity it's too weak to detect." He glanced at another readout. "No magnetic field either." Arnold rubbed his chin. "I wanna perform an experiment." He pulled the helmet for his compression-suit from its sconce on the Ascender's inner hull and started jamming it onto his head.
Jerry gasped. "You're not going out there, are you?!"
"Easiest way to throw things at it," Arnold smirked. He latched the helmet into its seal at the top of his compression-suit, then reached for a thruster pack.
"But, but . . ." Jerry realized it was no use talking him out of it. "Okay, what do you want me to do while you're out there?"
Arnold glanced around while he strapped the miniature rocket-pack onto his back, then flipped some switches to shut down the Ascender's translation thrusters. "Station keeping," he answered. "Keep me in sight out the window. Use this knob here to rotate the spacecraft. You get to talk to me on the radio, and maybe help out with an experiment or two." He toggled the airlock-cycle switch to Inner Open, and waited the few seconds for the tiny airlock compartment to fill with air before the inner door slid obligingly aside. He pulled himself through, scrunching himself sideways to fit in the tiny gap between the inner door and the outer hatch, then pressed the inside toggle switch, sealing himself inside.
"Radio check," Arnold's voice came from the headset clipped to the panel, startling Jerry. He fumbled a couple of times pulling it free and getting it in place on his head, then keyed the mike. "Uh, read you loud and clear."
Through the inner door's tiny window, Jerry could see Arnold lifting the guard over the Evacuate button and pressing it. The hiss of air being sucked out of the airlock was almost too faint to hear. "Suit compression seal checks out at all points," Arnold's voice sounded in Jerry's headset.
Arnold pulled the outer hatch's release lever and swung the thick door wide, exposing himself to the asteroid-strewn vacuum. With his left hand, he fiddled with the thruster pack controls that were draped over his right shoulder. "All pack thrusters green and firing," he confirmed to his partner. He nudged himself free of the little airlock chamber, then turned around and shut the outer hatch. "For safety," he told Jerry. Then, reorienting himself head-outward in the null gravity, he squatted with his feet against the hull, said, "Here I go!", and pushed himself away from the Ascender as hard as he could.
The Ascender's miniature station-keeping thrusters had to kick in briefly to compensate for Arnold's momentum.
Now freed from his transport, Arnold brought in his knees until he faced the dead center of the black disc, and held down the thruster controls' Translate Forward button. A hot stream of combusting propellants hissed out behind him — the thruster pack was too small for electric arc-jets or other high-efficiency verniers, so his fuel supply actually mattered. Still, this was the closest a human being could safely come to flying free. Arnold checked his cumulative accelerometer and, satisfied with his relative speed, released the thruster buttons.
Surrounded by deep space, with a view as wide as his helmet's panoramic faceplate. At one with the cosmos. He let his body go to jelly and just savored the view.
It had been far too long since he'd spacewalked.
"How long before you'll start decelerating?" Jerry's tinny voice blared in his ear. Damn. The moment was broken. Sigh . . . back to work.
"I'm aiming to stop a couple of hundred meters away," Arnold answered. "Lemme see if I can . . . yeah, that one'll do." He reached out his gloved right hand and, with the skill of a master shortstop, snatched a drifting pebble as he whizzed past. The tiny rock was still warm from its recent upheaval. "Turn on the radar. Do I show up?"
"Uh . . ." came a bewildered voice over his headset. "This panel's a little older than the ones I've trained on."
"The radar's controlled by keyboard commands," Arnold reminded his partner.
"Oh yeah!" Jerry's voice replied. A few seconds later: "Okay, I'm getting a full 3-D image now. Yeah, you're showing up, all right. You're the second biggest solid object in the field. There's a three-meter asteroid between us and the black disc, but it's nowhere near you."
Arnold looked to one side. UV Ceti's pale orange light illuminated the nearby debris nicely, like the late afternoon sun back on Earth. "I see it," Arnold said. "Okay, I have a pebble in my hand. I'm going to release it and let it drift near my head. Tell me if it shows up on your radar display, too."
"Yeah!" Jerry's voice answered as Arnold let the tiny rock drift along with him. "It's small, but I'm getting echoes. This old radar of yours is pretty nice. It looks like I can tell it to track the pebble just by touching it on the screen."
"You'll need that tracking in a minute or two," Arnold warned him as he plucked the pebble out of space and stowed it in a suit pocket. He tumbled backward until his destination was directly beneath him, and flicked the thruster controls again. "Braking."
Arnold slowed to a stop not 150 meters away from the black disc — closer to the disc than the disc was tall. It was a vast, circular ocean of nothing but the blackest black, overwhelming all else in view. The sense of teetering on the edge of a great, bottomless chasm nearly gave Arnold vertigo. "Wow," he caught his breath. "It's just . . . black. There's no light coming off it at all."
"That's consistent with all the readings we've taken so far, right?" Jerry asked.
"Yeah, we knew that, but . . . it's . . . it's quite another thing to see up close like this." Arnold flicked on his belt light, and narrowed it to its most intense beam. "No relfection from my flashlight beam, any more than from UV Ceti, no surprise there. And with no radar reflection, either, and no blackbody radiation . . . it's like it's not an object at all, but the complete and utter lack of an object. Like a flat hole in space. It's right about where ground zero was — I'm betting it's exactly at ground zero. The Phased Animatter Bomb must have punched this hole in space!"
"What?!" Jerry shook his head from within the Ascender's confines. "Oh come on."
"It sure wasn't around before the detonation, whatever it is. It would have been carving out huge chunks of the planet just by being in motion." Arnold composed himself. "All right, Jerry," he fished out the pebble from his pocket and held it at arm's length for his partner's benefit, "I'm going to throw this little rock at it. Start tracking!" He cocked back his arm and let fly in that trickiest of acrobatic maneuvers, the zero-gravity throw.
"Tracking!" Jerry confirmed, watching the dot that marked the pebble's position on his radar scope.
The pebble caught the reddish starlight thrown on it nicely. Arnold watched the tiny rock recede before him, and then . . .
"Hm!" Arnold said, the amazement still evident in his voice. "Looked like the pebble just vanished the instant it crossed the horizon. You getting any radar echoes?"
"None," Jerry replied. "The rock you threw is gone, all right."
Arnold furrowed his brow inside his helmet. "I'm going to edge closer to get a better look."
"Closer?!" Jerry winced in alarm.
"Don't worry, don't worry," Arnold replied, thumbing his thruster buttons, "I'll close at less than two meters a second. That'll give me plenty of time to slow down or stop long before I — aaaaaagh!"
Jerry gasped. "Arnie! Arnie! What happened?!" A short silence. "Report, dammit!"
The great explosion had sent debris flying away from ground zero in all directions, the smaller chunks being sent out faster, the larger chunks slower. The tiniest grains were sent out of the star system entirely; the ones not quite so tiny found themselves on wide orbits around UV Ceti; and all the larger fragments of Namu fell into some kind of orbit around their common center of mass. By now, a few of the smaller, faster chunks had already completed their first orbit, and were zinging past their points of origin at several kilometers per second. One of these rocky space bullets the size of a dime had had the incredible luck — bad luck — to lay on a course that sent it directly into Arnold's left shoulder. It splashed through suit and flesh and bone and sinew, and came out the other side hardly slower than when it entered. Even a shell of military space armor would have been hard-pressed to stop it. The suits were all self-sealing, per SBI spec, and so the two holes quickly squeezed shut over the flesh beneath them. But . . .
"I can't move my arm!" Arnold finally yelled into his transceiver. "Something hit me and hit me hard! It must've hit a nerve, or a tendon, or something. My fingers won't move and my arm's hardly more than a club right now!"
"Get out of there!" Jerry barked, glancing over at the First Aid cabinet. "I'll open the airlock for you right now, and extend the tether to —"
"No can do," Arnold interrupted him. "It was my left arm! I . . . can't . . . work the thruster controls!"
Jerry gasped, and looked down at the ascender's maneuvering panel for the first time that trip. It seemed ornately complicated for such a simple thing as low-speed translation and rotation. "I'm . . . I'm coming over to get you!" He grasped what he was sure was the translation lever and pressed, but nothing fired. He could feel his breath quicken and the nervous sweat start to build as he scanned the terse abbreviations above the myriad controls. "If I can figure out this panel, I'll put the ascender right in front of you and try to rotate so that you'll drift right into the airlock!"
There was the switch bank he was looking for — "Quad Arm". He flipped all four switches upward, and frantically tried the translation lever again. Nothing. He pressed the lever harder, and as he did so the propellant feed finished its brief power-on cycle and the ascender lurched wildly forward and to the right.
"Careful, Jerry!" Arnold stammered as he tried more and more creative ways to trigger his thruster controls. "Don't get too close to that damn space hole!"
Now consigned to his helplessness, Arnold at last looked up from his disabled left arm to get his bearings. He would be drifting in the last direction he'd fired his thrusters in . . . and with growing alarm, he realized that this sent him on a direct course for the dead-center of that circular ocean of blackness that had so captured their attention in the moments before. "Um . . . Jerry?"
"Yeah?" Jerry yelped a little too quickly, finally getting the craft on what looked, more or less, like an intercept trajectory. A slow-moving hunk of Namu banged off his outer hull.
"You'd better get here," Arnold said with worrisome calm, "Kinda quick-like."
Jerry stared at the image of his companion on one viewscreen — still too far away to be made out clearly, even with magnification — and tried to guess what Arnold's newfound urgency meant. It only took a split-second before Jerry gasped again. "I'm . . . I'm gonna try to speed up! I'll catch you before you hit it!" He pressed the forward translation lever again and kept it pressed, thrusting faster and faster in something that resembled the right direction. His mind raced . . . with the vacuum outside, working the outer hatch by hand meant sealing himself inside the airlock in his own compression-suit, and there wasn't room for two in there. If he couldn't find a remote override for the hatch, he'd have to hope that Arnold's good arm was in shape to throw the release lever from the outside. He'd also have to slow down before he got there, or he'd be just as deadly to Arnold as a runaway asteroid. He needed to find the midpoint of his intercept course and switch to aft thrusting the moment he reached it. Now where was . . .
Arnold looked back and forth between the far-off approaching ascender, and the nearby approaching hole in space, and at last, his heart sank. Even a master ascender pilot under maximum main-engine acceleration couldn't hope to reach him in time. He took one calming breath, then hit his transmitter. "Jerry. Listen. Get away. You can't get to me in time. I'm a goner. Stay away from the hole in space so you don't fall in too!"
"Don't give up on me, Arnold!" Jerry squealed in his helmet speakers, "I'm still —"
"No," Arnold cut him off. "Listen to me. You've got to get this data back to Sol. All of it. Understand? The video captures, the detector readings, this, this hole in space — they need to know it all! This data's too important to risk losing. Just tell the scramjet's S.I. to upload the data from the instruments and take you back to Sol; it'll know what to do and how to do it, it's pretty smart."
Arnold flicked off his transmitter, and stared dead ahead. The disc of utter blackness was nearly upon him. "Hm," he mumbled, "I wonder what's on the other side."
Wide-eyed, Jerry yelped in horror as his compatriot crossed the threshold and disappeared from sight. He punched the aft thrust lever to brake his own motion toward that seeming disc of annihilation, tears welling in his eyes. "ARNIE!" he barked into his transmitter, "Arnie, can you hear me?! Are you still there? Is it survivable?! Answer me, dammit!"
But no message came in reply.
He slumped into a ball in the null gravity.
His partner and confidant no longer existed. The Mad Scientist was now a thin chemical haze mingled with the orbiting dust. There was no other living person within eight-and-a-half light-years. And here he was, stuck in a two-man short-range capsule that he barely knew how to operate, surrounded by lethal whizzing rocks.
He took a deep breath. Okay, stay calm. Mental checklist. Just like they taught you. First thing: vehicle safety. Is the vehicle you're in right now showing any warning signs? He scanned the panels. There was the drawer he needed, the pre-maneuver checklist. It was printed on plastic sheets, along with the emergency checklist, to make sure it would be there even if all the onboard computers crashed. Okay. Step one. Cabin pressure integrity warning . . . clear and green. Good, the atmosphere wasn't leaking into space. Next, CO2 levels. Below 50 parts per million — well within the normal range. Cryogenic oxygen supply . . . half full. There were months of breatheable air for him if he needed it. CO2 scrubbers? Clean as the day they were born. Maneuvering thruster propellant? Nearly full, despite all his recent running around. Which was good, because according to that checklist, the propellant was also his drinking water supply. Electric power? Hmmm . . . the batteries were nearly full. After being separated from the mothership for so many weeks? How . . . oh. A note on the checklist said that the batteries would automatically recharge whenever the main engine was in use.
The main engine. Jerry shuddered. Best not to think about that just yet.
His vessel and his situation seemed, for the moment, to check out. He gazed out the front window again. That 200-meter black disc looked too close for comfort. For all he knew, it might suddenly start charging toward him on its own. Like it or not, he had to get the Ascender moving again. What would be —
The S.I.! The S.I. back on board the scramjet. Yes. Arnold said it was pretty smart. Maybe it could help him. He'd better call in and explain the situation to it. It might be able to piece together enough of an understanding about what had just happened to offer useful advice. His headset was still in place, and he hadn't switched off the radio transceiver. He keyed the mike. "This is Jerry Redlands, calling the S.I. in, uh, in the spacecraft that brought us here. Do you read me?"
Jerry slapped himself on the forehead. Of course. Arnold had left the radio set for short-range omnidirectional broadcasting, so that they could talk a few klicks apart. The scramjet was ten thousand kilometers away. He switched over to the high-gain parabolic antenna, and aimed it until it pointed, more or less, at the small moon that had recently been his home. Normally, motherships sent out regular radiobeacons to let their Ascenders and other "daughter" craft keep communications equipment trained on them; but the SBI's paranoid rules about silent running meant that Jerry could only guess at where the scramjet was supposed to be. He hoped the high-gain antenna's beam would be wide enough to catch it.
"This is Jerry Redlands," he repeated, "Calling the S.I. in the spacecraft that brought us here. . . ." How had Arnold addressed it? Oh yes. "Doris, do you read me?"
"I'm listening," came a feminine voice in his headphones. It was the most soothing, reassuring thing he'd heard since this whole mess began.
"Arnold is gone," Jerry explained. "We should presume him dead. He wanted me to tell you to upload all the data from the instruments we left on the moon. I don't think I'll be able to land and retrieve those instruments, so we'll have to leave them here."
A short silence. Then: "Uploading will require the transmission of mission-classified data from the instruments. Confirm, do you wish to breach the mission's radio silence mandate?"
"Yes," Jerry replied. "Do the upload." Even the stodgiest Bureau chief would understand the need.
"Commencing," the feminine voice answered.
"Arnold also said," Jerry continued, "That you'd know how to take me back to Sol. Can you do that?"
"This spacecraft is theoretically capable of unlimited intra-galactic travel. But it can't take you to Sol unless you're inside it."
Thanks for telling me the obvious, Jerry smirked. "Can you take control of this Ascender to pilot me back to you?"
"No," the S.I. replied. "For security reasons, your Ascender is not built to accept control instructions from the outside."
Jerry cursed. "Okay, then, can you tell me how to return to your spacecraft, given my present position?"
"Yes. Program a rendezvous trajectory into the Ascender's navigational system."
Jerry put a palm to his face. Of course. Just because this little Ascender didn't have an S.I. on board didn't mean it lacked any kind of an autopilot. He keyed up the menu for course planning, selected a near-brachistochrone orbital rendezvous, and was amazed that the computer had already pinpointed the scramjet and was offering it as an available rendezvous target. Even automatic collision-avoidance radar merited little more than an "oh, by the way" mention on the screen. All he had to do was pick the acceleration to use.
"Oh no," he said to himself, remembering the last maneuvers Arnold had programmed, "Not this time." He set the acceleration for a nice, gentle 0.5 g. He was about to step back to his seatcouch and hit Engage, when he looked out the window again and worry once again creased his brow. That black disc was something the authors of the flight software could not possibly have taken into account. Since it didn't reflect radar, the navigation system might think there was nothing there at all, and try to fly right through it. He'd better steer himself clear first. He grabbed the translation lever and gently pulled straight out of the console for a few seconds. A hiss from the maneuvering jets pushed the Ascender slowly "up"-ward, perpendicular to the black plane, until the disc's edge had passed below the window. He was now free and clear — or as free and clear as it was possible to be when surrounded by careening hunks of a former planet. He strapped himself in and pressed the Engage panel by his side.
Three warning beeps sounded from the console, but nothing else happened.
Oh. Yes. He needed to power up the main engine first.
He unstrapped, found the switch bank, and flipped on the startup sequence. There was the crescendoing hum he'd remembered. Back in the seatcouch. This time it would work. He glanced down at the Engage panel, just to reassure himself that the Abort panel was right nearby, and pressed it again.
Below and behind him, a tightly focused beam of normal hydrogen met an equally-focused beam of heavy hydrogen with enough force to smash their nuclei together. The resulting superheated helium-3 plasma flew out the engine bell at speeds too fast to be clocked. This time, though, the reactants were rarefied enough that their force on the Ascender was only half as strong as Earth's surface-gravity, instead of seven times its strength.
Jerry settled in for a gentle 48-minute trip.
Ten minutes in, though . . . BANG! A sound like a shotgun ripped through the cabin, jolting him senseless. He would've jerked bolt-upright if not for his seatcouch's restraining harness. The cabin pressure integrity warning buzzed angrily at him, but he didn't need it. The two gaping, hissing holes were impossible to miss. His luck had run out; a tiny piece of Namu, probably the size of a peppercorn, had smashed head-on into the side of the Ascender at nearly escape velocity, and had left entry and exit wounds gushing air.
Plug them. Plug the holes with something. Jerry unbuckled his straps with shaking hands. There were usually . . . yes. Sealer patches. Like all spacecraft, the Ascender carried a stack of circular metal sheets with rubberized edges a couple dozen centimeters across, for exactly this kind of emergency. He popped one of the sealer patches out from the dispenser and slapped it against the hole nearer the main window. With a quick slurping sound, it pressed itself to the hole and sealed its edges so tightly that Jerry could see the wall's contours in its rubbery circumference. The center flexed slightly outward against the vacuum, but was in no danger of breaking. He pulled another patch loose and let it suck itself up against the hole on the opposite side. As quickly as they had started, the hissing sounds stopped.
The warning buzzer stopped a second or two later. Okay. Pressure crisis averted. Did the meteor strike damage any important systems? Nothing was beeping or buzzing at him, so the automatic warning systems hadn't caught anything obvious. He scanned the readouts. No fluid pressure leaks, no dead wiring . . . he breathed a sigh of relief. The meteor had missed anything important. The Ascender had merely sustained a flesh wound.
Although . . . uh oh. Those two holes were on the sides, not the bottom, which meant they went right through the Heat Bolide covering. That would ruin the integrity of the heat shield. If he attempted an aerobraking atmospheric entry with the hull in this state, or a high-speed atmospheric ascent, the superheated air would jet right on through and incinerate him inside. Good to know, but not a real threat to getting back to Earth; he could make a slow atmospheric entry using the main engine, and up the cabin pressure to hold the sealer patches in place until he neared Sea Level; or, he could just dock at one of the many space stations in Earth orbit and use their facilities instead.
In any event, there was nothing more he could do at the moment. He lumbered back to his seatcouch — the main engine was still thrusting at half a gee as though nothing had happened — and strapped in for the remainder of the trip.
Eleven minutes later, the engine throttled itself back to idle; he drifted at zero gee while the ascender slowly "skew flipped" by pitching over 180 degrees. The engine now pointed toward his destination rather than away from it. After five minutes of coasting, the half-gee thrust resumed. That strategy — accelerating nearly half way, coasting for an all-too-brief moment, and then decelerating for the rest of the trip — was only a slight variant on what was known as a Brachistochrone or least-time trajectory. It was horribly inefficient but incredibly fast. Efficiency was hardly ever an issue, though, with nuclear fusion at your side. It only mattered on very long trips — as in, interstellar long — or when there was a problem with your engine.
Another 24 minutes of deceleration thrusting passed, and at last the main engine cut out for the final time. Jerry unstrapped and nudged the rotation lever until . . . ah, there it was. The scramjet that had brought him here. His Ascender was drifting right next to it, in the same orbit around the small moon. The fuel bags attached to its long boom, so scrawny when he'd left the starship those months ago, now bulged with full loads of hydrogen. To think that merely ten thousand kilometers away, it was just another bright moving speck like all the surrounding debris; and now it was so close he could almost touch it.
He'd better make damn sure he only touched it in the right place, though.
"Jerry Redlands, calling the S.I."
"I'm listening," the artificial woman's voice responded.
"Um . . . I need to dock. But I've only ever practiced docking once, and that was in a simulator a long while ago. I'll need you to talk me through it."
"Understood," the S.I. replied. "Cycling docklock open now. Please switch on the Ascender's telemetry transmitter."
Telemetry transmitter? Thank goodness. The S.I couldn't pilot the Ascender itself, but at least it could get constant updates of the craft's position and orientation without Jerry having to read them off of the instruments. He flipped the switch labelled "Telem master."
"Pitch down to one three zero," the S.I. began its instructions, "Yaw left to two four five, then roll right to two zero...."
It took about five minutes, with a close call near the end, but at last the Ascender clicked into the arms of the docking clamp. Jerry's sigh of relief nearly drowned out the noise of the inrushing air after the docklock closed.
"Ascender bay fully pressurized," the S.I. reassured him.
He opened the Ascender's inner and outer airlock doors, then ran through the brief power-down-and-secure checklist and, finally, pulled himself free of the tiny spacecraft-within-a-spacecraft and into the scramjet's roomy halls for the first time in months. All that time he'd spent bounding about in 0.005 g had paid off in one small way — he no longer needed magnetic boots to make his way around. He could even carry his poster with him out of the Ascender and stick it on a wall without fumbling.
It was time to leave this thrice-forsaken star system and get the mission data into Sol's hands.
"S.I.?" he spoke the letters into the air, hoping there was a pickup nearby. "Can you hear me?"
A nearby video display read: "Yes."
"Uh . . . can you get us back to Earth?"
"Good. Then do it."
"Planetary and stellar escape trajectories selected. How quickly do you wish to accelerate?"
"Erm . . . how fast can we go?"
"Full thrust at fuel burnout would result in an acceletation of 15 g. However, spacecraft's rated sustained load limit is 2.0 g. Exceeding this limit is not advised."
"Two gees, then. Oh, wait! Put us at one gee right now, and go to two once I'm in hibernation."
"Best course to Earth, 1 g immediately, 2 g once all occupants are in submetabolic sleep. Fuel burnout will occur at 0.2c; acceleration will be limited by collection field performace from 0.2 c until 0.4c. Estimated rest-time en route 9 years 173 days. Confirm?"
"Yes, do it."
"Engine thrust in twenty seconds," the voice warned.
Jerry could feel the cabin start to rotate as the starship slowly swung its full, ungainly length around to point to its departure vector. He glanced around at each of the six walls to see which way was going to be "down." Next to one surface, the adjoining walls each bore the label "Engine thrust floor," with a little arrow pointing to the surface. The opposite wall was similarly labelled "Braking floor" — maybe that would matter if he came out of hibernation before the collection-scoop-deceleration phase of his return trip was over, but it was the engine thrust floor that mattered now. He swung his legs around and planted them firmly against this surface, wobbly as it was with all that spinning going on. He was ready as he could be for —
Ungh! He crumpled to the floor, unprepared for the engine to come to life so abruptly. "Damn." He struggled back to his feet; after walking around at half a percent of a gee for so long, his full terrestrial weight felt like pushing upstream against an industrial fire hose. Well, at least he knew the engine was working. He was underway.
"Erm, hibernation," he half-asked.
"Would you like to enter submetabolic sleep now?"
"Is there anything else I need to do first?"
"This spacecraft and SI Controller are self-maintaining. All vessel and person needs will be handled autonomously while occupants are in submetabolic sleep. Occupants will be revived three hours prior to arrival or immediately in case of anomaly."
"Okay, then, freeze me."
There was a whir from the adjoining hibernation room. The display blanked and responded, "One individual chamber prepared. You may enter when prepared for submetabolic sleep."
He grinned a tired, satisfied grin, walked to the hibernation room's hatch, opened it — and slowed to a stop. I don't have to tell you the experiment's strategic implications should it prove successful, he mouthed, recalling the orders he and Arnold received when they first arrived. The strategic implications. The power to turn any solid planet inside-out. In the sole posession of the Solar Federal Government.
The power to eradicate a world — to eradicate any world — in the hands of a few people who believe that Centaurians are sub-human.
No, he shook his head, Arnold had been right — the Solar government may be a bunch of bullies, but they weren't monsters. Such a weapon would be more useful as a deterrent than as a weapon of mass genocide. . . . assuming, that is, that their enemies actually knew about it. That their potential attackers actually believed that a weapon so powerful even existed.
If Sol was going to build another Phased Antimatter Bomb, they couldn't use it as a deterrent without demonstrating it, first. Really demonstrating it, unambiguously, shockingly, in a way that made their enemies feel the demonstration like a punch to the human gut. Oh, sure, Alpha Centauri or Sirius or CN Leonis could point their telescopes at UV Ceti IV and see only an orbiting cloud of debris, but that would be too easy to write off as a fluke or a hoax or a natural disaster.
No, Sol would have to make a more effective demonstration of the Phased Antimatter Bomb. They'd have to set one off in full view of their enemies, the closer to home the better. They might even . . .
His eyes grew wide with horror . . .
They might even choose to "demonstrate" their new toy on Alpha Centauri A III itself.
"There's not a man or woman alive who didn't, at some point in his or her life — however brief that point might have been — believe in the Henderson Doctrine."
He gasped, caught himself, turned his head away briefly — and found himself looking straight into the 3-D poster of Cronazza Heap on his wall.
The nearest display read, "I'm listening."
"We have a copy of the plans for the Mad Scientist's Phased Antimatter device on file, don't we?"
Jerry chuckled. Their mission orders were self-destructing, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands; yet the far more valuable plans for the Phased Antimatter experiment itself were free for the taking. No one ever accused the SBI of being infallable decisionmakers.
"How far are we from each of the five nation star systems?"
"Sol, 8.6 light-years; Sirius, 10.2 light-years; Alpha Centauri, 10.3 light-years; Human-Centauri, 12.2 light-years; CN Leonis, 15.4 light-years."
"Transmit the complete Phased Antimatter device plans, and all recently uploaded information on the experiment, on high-power tight beam to the following locations: Earth, Alpha Centauri A three, CN Leonis two, Sirius A four, and Human-Centauri one. Repeat the transmission several times to be sure each star system receives it error-free. And tell each system that I've sent the same message to the other four."
"Oh, oh, wait! But don't start transmitting to the closer star systems until the signal to the more distant ones has had time to get part of the way there. Uh, you see what I'm saying? I want you to stagger the transmissions so they all arrive where they're each individually going at the same time. Got it?"
"Understood. Project five points along our course to Sol such that transmission from said points will reach each of five star systems simultaneously. First transmission will be from present location at present time, aimed at CN Leonis II. Shall I commence?"
Jerry hesitated. Then, he shook his head in determination. This had to be done. Even though he'd sworn his allegiance to the Solar Federal Government when he joined the SBI, giving them sole ownership of the bomb-to-end-all-bombs was like giving dynamite to a frustrated five-year-old. At least if all the nation-systems had such a device, the threat of mutually assured destruction would make them think twice before committing genocide. "Commence the transmission program," he affirmed.
Outside the scramjet's hull, a behemoth of an ultraviolet laser made one final fine adjustment to its aim, then flared into life. The modulated beam could melt steel; it had to be powerful enough for the data it carried to arrive ungarbled fifteen light-years away. Over a century ago, both Sol and Alpha Centauri realized that either might want to send the other an urgent message without warning, so they developed what eventually became XRCP, the eXtreme Range Communications Protocol. The most recent standard, XRCP version 3, covered everything from how to get the listener's attention to error-correcting codes to data redundancy to frequency bands for Doppler-shifted sources. XRCP's throughput was painfully sluggish, but its fidelity was as high as was possible given the distance. With a 30-year round-trip time, there was no way for the receiver to say "Sorry, could you repeat that please?" The laser pumped out its last data bits, then folded back into place against the hull.
Inside, though, the only telltale was a few indicator lights flashing on.
"Good God, I actually did it," Jerry mumbled. "Sol is going to kill me."
And then it hit him. Sol probably would kill him. He'd just committed an act of high treason, and was about to commit three more in timed sequence. Going back to Sol was out of the question. Perhaps, though, one of the systems he'd leaked this information to would be grateful enough to grant him asylum.
"I want to change course," he told the starship. "Reset the destination to Alpha Centauri A three."
"New destination of Alpha Centauri A III confirmed. Do you wish to continue accelerating at 1 g, and switch to optimum-speed acceleration of 2.0 g when in submetabolic sleep?"
"Yes, yes, keep everything else the same."
"Estimated rest-time en route 11 years 72 days. New points for simultaneous receipt of requested transmission have been assigned along projected course. You may enter your individual chamber when prepared for submetabolic sleep."
This time, he didn't stop on his way into the hibertation room. He stripped off his clothing, stuffed it in the neighboring laundry slot, climbed in his coffin, and watched the lid inch closed above him. Now all he could do was wait. From what little he remembered of the last time he'd been in SMS, he wouldn't have to wait for long. . . .
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 3.
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