Gravitonic bomb? Yeah. Great. Next Big Thing. Gonna Revitalize the National Laboratories. Make Weaponeering Relevant Again. Break the Nuclear Stalemate. We all heard the slogans. That cold-as-living-fuck New Mexico morning, standing out there in the desert, we all expected scenes of great devastation; the wags were setting up parabolic reflectors to light their cigars and wiggling plastic figurines of Kali in homage to Oppie. Some had started smoking pipes and wearing Hombergs for that same purpose. There were, I don't know, perhaps seventeen of us in the Core Physics Group who had some acknowledged contribution to the Widget ("It's like a gadget, but better!") and all of us were standing out there at that ungodly hour in cold-weather gear waiting for the firing time and generally clowning around in a nervous group.
All except Rafe, whose design it really was. He claimed to have had the inspiration from watching a bad episode of Star Trek while flying on homemade acid at CalTech, but nobody knew how much of that was true. What we did know was that over two billion dollars of Uncle Sam's money had been spent in a little over five years once he and his advisor had managed to get someone at Livermore to watch their presentation.
Thirty seconds to go, announced the tower speaker. People started quieting and facing the sandy expanse out towards Pit Five where the Widget was buried. Nobody knew what, precisely, was going to happen when the thing did its thing; they just knew nobody was going to be within ten miles of it, that was for sure.
Rafe would only say with assuredness that the Widget was going to erase a certain amount of matter by forcing spontaneous creation of a certain amount of matter. What he didn't know, he said, was how much turmoil there would be at the boundary. He tended to start lapsing into torsion figures and spacetime tensors at that point, and people - even on the CPG - started glazing over. The sixteen others were there because they were the only ones the Government could find who could follow the conjectured process as far as "...and then it goes bamf...which of course means it has theta-sub-tau time before it goes zoop!" If you could prove that you knew what that meant, you were on the Core Physics Group. Even though none of us really could take the math past that point. It was that point of our mutual disunderstanding, however, which had led us to name the Widget that morning while we huddled around a couple of thermoses of coffee in the viewing room.
"So at theta-sub-tau, we get zoop, right?" That was Graff, who was wizard with the actual instigation mechanisms but fairly hopeless with the event math. He'd been christened the Widgeteer and had a badge which had a stylized crescent wrench on it.
"...and whatever's in the region of spacetime subtended by tau-zero..."
"...goes zoop." Various members of the CPG took it in turns to answer his almost plaintive questions.
"Right. And when everything inside tau-zero zoops, it does so in a fundamentally new way, correct?"
"We hope. Theoretically, it zoops so hard it stops affecting the region gravitically."
Graff looked around, a light dawning. "Then it's zooped right out of existence. It's a Universal Destructor. Has anyone got an Acme logo sticker?" Those had been popular in the lab for a brief fad of a couple of months when someone realized how much like Wile E. Coyote one of the lab's administrative heads looked.
There was a brief silence, everyone struck by the aptness of his pronouncement, coffee cups stilled. Then a voice spoke from over by the railing, Rafe weighing in on this lese-ing of his baby. "Universal Destructor it is."
A cheer went up. The clock hit zero. There was a slight shudder in the fabric of the World some ten miles away and a klick underground. The quantum foam suffered a slight disruption; five pairs of positrons and electrons popped into existence inside the Casimir radius of the Widget during the Instigation Interval, and only four met each other half an orbit later and vanished.
The Widget sucked in the fifth positron, entangled it, and teleported it sideways some three centimeters, where it met its death nigh-on-silently inside a beryllium block. The resultant surviving electron completed an orbit of its creation point and then - smack! - hit another quantum foaming pair just as the Instigation Period ended, supercapacitors burning out with the strain. These two particles shifted paths just enough to miss each other, and smacked into two more. With the suddenness of a snow avalanche, a torrent of matter spun from nothingness into the vacuum inside the Widget, and twenty-five microseconds after the Instigation period ended, the beryllium block was shoved into the Casimir chamber by a delicately placed block of Hexium explosive and one of Graff's slapper detonators.
Mass continued to erupt into the universe as the block intruded, and there was no vacuum to receive it. The Widget vanished immediately into a glare of Teller Light as the process caused several antimatter annihilation reactions to spew various decay products at the edge of the rapidly-expanding ball of matter. The fireball at its heart grew with heartstopping suddenness to several centimeters, and then the matter fountain at its center had poured enough mass into existence that, with a bright flash of Dopplered X-rays, several hundred meters of matter in all directions vanished into the newly-created gravity field, collapsing into a minute black hole. Even before instruments could register the black hole's creation, the process outran the imagination of sixteen of the seventeen CPG scientists and climbed into Rafe Echevarria's head, and the sudden influx of mass into the unstable zero point caused the entire process to rotate smoothly out of the Einsteinian universe, leaving behind an absolute vacuum. Matter already accelerating inbound towards the now-vanished black hole's mass crashed together in a merely-fusion-hot ball, and just before a kilometer of rock vanished into a strangely-salted fusion flare, an observer in the chamber would have heard a deathly silence, penetrated by a single sound.
* * *
While the rest of us were still sleeping off the hangovers produced by the party which had been sparked by both the success of the test and the realization that we hadn't event-horizoned the planet (some of the CPG had, loudly but anonymously, worried about the possibility) Rafe had moved on to step two.
* * *
"You want to what?" The Air Force general was disbelieving but quiet, having not remained immune to the party following his project report the night before. Six months after the Widget test, the total was two billion dollars successfully spent; an entire class of weapons produced for less than the original cost of the first atomic bomb. He was expecting this to do wonderful things for his career.
"I want a dedicated Shuttle launch, general. With modifications to the tank, which will remain in orbit. I want the apparatus currently in my lab ferried up to the ISS and installed into the tank, which I want made habitable."
The General laughed heartily, then ran down when he saw Rafe wasn't smiling. "Son, go have coffee."
Rafe sighed. "General Flynn, I'm not kidding. I want this done, and I want it done as soon as humanly possible. It's not negotiable."
"What the hell are you on about?"
"I'd hate this to be confrontational."
The Air Force officer was rapidly losing his good mood; his hangover and his rising irritation combined to produce an instant pulsing headache which fueled his well-practiced junior-officer-flaying thunder. "God DAMN IT, boy, you've been coddled because you're important to-"
"General, shut up." The interruption was so unexpected that it actually had the desired effect. Rafe smiled, once, thinly, at the puce man sitting behind the desk. "I'm sorry, General, I really don't have any desire to anger you. Please, just hear me out."
The other sat down slowly, rage fading to a sort of fascinated fury.
Rafe nodded. "Thanks. Look, I'm sorry. I just need this mission. I made sure you need me to get it. I'm not trying to threaten you, General. I just want you to understand that the entire math sequence for the Instigation Event which you have in your cores is incomplete as well as wrong. In other words, no more Widgets unless I get what I want."
"-could probably manage an instigation event, yes. But they certainly couldn't manage to produce the continuum rotation mathematics, as you well know, and that would mean you'd get a Universal Destructor you couldn't stop Destructing. Not very useful, is it?"
"Damn it, I'll have you-"
"Oh, be serious, General. A single shuttle mission. A tank you're going to fly up there anyway. My gear will fit into any one of four of the remaining ISS construction missions with room and mass to spare; I and two assistants on the ISS would handle all manpower for refurbishing the tank and installing it. That's all."
"What do I get out of this craziness?"
"What, other than a working weapon?"
"ONE I PAID YOU FOR!"
"Well, yes, but you weren't offering to sell what I needed."
The general deflated slightly. "It's not going to be that easy."
It wasn't, of course. But the general did have friends in high places.
* * *
...six, go for main engine start, three, two one, SRB ignition, zero, LIFTOFF-"
The Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted for the ISS carrying Rafe Echevarria, Thomas Graff, and a junior research assistant named Ellen Gennary who had far outscored everyone else on the CPG or their immediate staff on a combined metric of CPG physics and zero-gee dexterity. Graff was wearing his C-wrench button on the outside of his spacesuit and an awed shit-eating grin on his middle-aged face. Gennary had a look of absolute completion on her slight features and was clutching, hidden inside her left gauntlet, a small square of cloth against her palm. It contained the emblem of the United Federation of Planets.
The professional Astronauts were frozenly proper to the three interlopers at first. That lasted until Graff fixed the zero-gee toilet for the third time, each time fixing it to correct design flaws. Gennary had rewired a redundant systems monitor into a functional equivalent of a TiVo which was BitTorrenting Battlestar Galactica and Lost episodes onto storage space the ISS had intended to store trash and sewage management records, and Echevarria had recalculated the algorithm governing the reaction control wheels to extend the time required between Angular Momentum Dump thruster burns by over 250%. At that point, the Russian cosmonaut currently in residence admitted to a stash of truffle chocolate, the American 'found' his bottle of Kentucky bourbon, and Graff made himself more popular by sniffing it and spending twenty-three hours producing a completely functional and completely invisible still embedded within the ISS' life support plumbing which produced pure grain ethanol. Rafe surprised them all by figuring out precisely how to crack the abominable barbecue sauce in the NASA ration packs using a vacuum distillation process to extract the smoke flavoring, which, when combined with a bit of tweaked sugars, produced a fairly interesting bourbon analogue.
By the second week, the five of them were nearly family.
The third week, Graff went outside to take off the little paired grinding bots that he'd attached to the Shuttle External Tank which was floating down-orbit from them a few hundred meters. The little bots had spiraled their way up the tank, powered by the sun, keeping their place on its surface by a hoop-shaped tether joining them on opposite sides of the structure as they toiled. According to a complex plan of Rafe's, they burred the ablative shielding off the tank in a fairly intricate geometric pattern, studded with a few bare spots. When that was done, ignoring the muttering of the permanent 'naut community about pollution of the local vacuum, the three CPG team members went out and drilled holes through several of the bare spots, culminating with a two-day procedure cutting a large square hatch into the base of the tank at a precise spot. Affixing hinges to the aluminum, they sealed it messily with quickset gasket, hauled Rafe's gear inside module by module, and shut the door.
Several days passed, with solar panels popping up onto the tank and a slight stream of gaseous ejecta showing that CO2 scrubbers had gotten into operation inside the tank. The permanent crew astronauts had several running bets on what the hell was going on and how; when Graff came over one orbit to borrow a flex coupling, mumbling bitchily about broken internal plumbing on the reactant vessels, they nodded sagely to each other and the American passed the Russian a sawbuck. The CPG was using the leftover H2 and O2 in the tank for water, oxygen and power.
Over the next week, broken only by the ferrying of meal packs into the tank by Ellen and Graff, the tank slowly accumulated several mysterious painted labels, a few communications dishes, what appeared to be salvaged Apollo-design attitude control thrusters and several camera blisters, along with a large sloppily painted logo with an arrow pointing to the base of the Tank reading THIS END UP. When the tank blipped ice crystals and steam and rotated wobbily in place, more nods and a fin passed back the other way indicated another wager settled. That night, all three CPG came over for dinner.
"Gentlement, thank you so much for all your help." Rafe was expansive, for him; they hadn't really heard him say much. Graff was busily negotiating with the Russian sotto voce for the past week's output from the still.
Commander Remington, the U.S. Navy astronaut, toasted the three of them with a squeezebox of ethanOJ. "You're welcome, Rafe. Gotta admit, you guys pulled your weight up here. Atlantis will be here in two days. You guys ready to hit gravity again?"
There were furtive looks. "Well, yes. It's getting a little uncomfortable in the Tank; we're not set up to spin it, and although it's pretty organized, we'd all like to feel Down beneath our feet again." Rafe took another sip of his own Bourboff (as Dmitri called the smoke flavored distillate).
They ended the party with gifts; the Astronauts handed over mission patches, signifying their acceptance of the amateurs as actual spacehands. The CPG team handed over wrench badges. Then the CPG crew headed back to the Tank to bunk down.
* * *
General Flynn was not accustomed to being awakened in person by his subordinates. Not in his bedroom at home. Not, in fact, since those lunatics from the CPG had left his project - and it had cost him in terms of favors for that! - had he in fact suffered a day that did not hew to schedule.
"Umf. What?" He rolled over. Grimacing, he put a finger to his lips, got out of bed and followed his ADC into the next room so as to avoid waking his wife.
"What the hell is it, man?"
"Uh, sir, you're wanted on the phone, pronto."
"Do we have any kind of alert?"
"No sir. They, um, just want you on the phone."
By the time the general got to his office and onto the scrambler, he was most upset to find the remaining fifteen members of the CPG clustered outside it, looking as if they, too had been rudely awakened. Unlike him, however, they looked more excited than unnerved or surprised, and that made him extremely nervous. He considered collaring them right here and having his security beat answers out of a few of them, but before this admittedly lovely fantasy could be implemented, the ADC stuck his head out the office door. "Sir, the link is up."
The general swept into his office and brought up the videowall. A scene of orderly chaos filled it, apparently the Blue Room at NASA's Johnson Space Center. A gaggle of military uniforms were outnumbered by the rolled-up sleeves and crumpled ties that seemed to serve as NASA admin uniforms, taken from 1960s Apollo newsreels. A NASA bigwig swung to face the vidwall as Flynn sat.
"There you are, Flynn. What the flying hell are these idiots up to?"
"What idiots, sir?" Flynn's stomach sank. He knew what was coming.
"Those idiots you paid for a taxi ride to the ISS for out of your project budget!" the NASA administrator snarled. "LOOK!" He swung the camera to point at the display wall and pointed.
The ISS was visible, icon blinking steadily in its assigned orbit. A window graphic next to it showed the ISS floating serenely against a backdrop of stars. The scene was so normal that it took a second for it to sink in. "Where's the Tank?"
One of the other Air Force general officers broke in. "That's the problem, Flynn. We don't know. We thought you might. Did the young idiots vaporize themselves?"
"Well, unlikely, sir, or the ISS would..." Flynn trailed off, thinking. One of the NASA men filled in the pause.
"The ISS crew was asleep. They swear they woke up and the Tank was gone. Poof, not there. Whatever happened, it didn't wake them up, and the Tank was only two hundred meters down-orbit from them."
"Do we have video?"
"No." One of the controllers behind the group visibly hunched down at the words. "Somehow, we have several stored hours of Battlestar Galactica sitting in our environmental video log files. Believe me, we've taken that up with them."
At that moment, another phone rang. It was on Flynn's desk, and he had always - up to now - been amused by the fact that it was red.
He picked it up, dread making his fingers icy. "Flynn."
The voice was calm with the precision of both training and the assurance that its owner is going through an unscheduled drill. "Sir, this is SPACECOM Colorado Springs. We have an unidentified target outbound from Earth orbit, approximate starting position colocated with the ISS."
Flynn waved frantically at the screen. One of his colleagues noticed him holding the phone, paled, grabbed his own phone and started punching buttons. A few moments later, he nodded and put the phone down. Everyone on the NASA end was staring at it. Flynn hit his own speakerphone button and told his ADC "Get everyone in the corridor in here right now."
As the Lieutenant hurried to comply, he turned back to the red deskset. "SPACECOM, Flynn. Target size?"
"Sir, target size matches that of an STS External Tank almost precisely."
There was a silence. Flynn frowned. "SPACECOM?"
"Sir, target is accelerating. Current velocity is...is..."
"Sir, it appears to be seven point seven three kilometers per second, and increasing."
There was a deep, ringing silence. Then a massive cheer broke out, startling everyone on both ends of the videolink; Flynn looked up to see fifteen pajama-clad members of the CPG capering around the office. One of them actually produced a champagne bottle from under his bathrobe and another produced a pair of champagne flutes from...somewhere in her intimates. Flynn looked away quickly but reached out and grabbed the nearest one by the scruff of the neck, dragging him into range of the vidwall camera. "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"
The noise quieted. When Flynn loosened his grip, the young man stopped making choking noises, looked at him reproachfully, accepted a wild smooch from the girl who'd produced the glassware from her panties and took on a professorial air (not a bad trick for someone in a set of cowboy pajamas, Flynn thought numbly). "It's Rafe, Ellen and Graff, obviously, General."
"Oh! That was Graff's idea, actually," said the young man. "His and Ellen's. That's why they got to go, the lucky bastards." Another cheer.
Flynn controlled the urge to throttle him. "How. Are. They. Boosting? They don't have the Isp to manage anything like that kind of delta-V, even if the tanks were full - they just don't have the hardware!"
A voice broke in from NASA. "They're up to..." there was a swallowing noise "...eighteen point six kips, now."
The CPG scientist, one arm around the girl (who was mostly in panties, Flynn noted) schnozzled warm champagne. "Oh! They're using the Universal Destructor."
"The Widget! See, Rafe was all worried that we'd end up wiping out the planet in an uncontrolled cascade, originally. Once he beat that, mathwise, he relaxed, but then Ellen and Graff explained what that meant. It took him six months to work out the math for this part, and it took Graff to work out a bunch of the hardware, but, well, see, they've got the Destructor engineered down into a controllable system, not just a bomb."
"What does that have to do..."
The other waved impatiently. "Don't you see? He started the Instigation Event, but managed to make it not zoop!"
Flynn looked murderous.
"The matter cascade is rotating out just slightly out of phase! There's a black hole appearing in front of the Tank, and the tank is moving towards it - gravity, duh - and then it's rotating out when the tank gets slightly closer, and a new one is cascading just further out from it. It's a spacetime tank track. The key is that it's a Universal Destructor - as you fall towards the mass point, you can actually destroy it - remove it from the equation - so that it doesn't just pull you back as you go past it. So long as the widget keeps operating, there's a black hole in front of the Tank trying to pull it in, and it's going to keep accelerating."
There was a vast silence.
"But..." the voice was one of the NASA contingent. "Why didn't they tell us? Where's he GOING?"
"Oh, I dunno. I think he was mumbling about wanting to see what happened if he let the Tank get within Tau-zero, if it would actually stably wormhole out-"
Flynn knuckled his forehead, and answered. "Because we wouldn't let him drive. He's just going to cruise around the neighborhood for a bit, before he brings back the car." He looked up at the NASA crew. "We just have to pray he doesn't total it. And next time, when he asks us for a favor, remember to say yes, okay?"
This story is dedicated to Ed. Keep on rocking free of the world, Ed.