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The Retarded Bomb

by Alan Jackson

The bridge of the Olaus Wormius was only dimly lit during mid-shift, indeed by far the brightest light came from a busy plasma HUD display reflected on the concerned face of Jordache Levine. Levine was not a man easily discomforted; he had been a weapons Sys-op for more years than he cared to remember, but even he was not quite prepared for the current situation.

‘Okay Bomb, I will explain it one more time.’ His patience was starting to wear thin. ‘It’s a fairly simply concept, is it not? There is little philosophical ambiguity in the direction that you have been given. The program is not a particularly complicated one. Tell me, which part of “Go there, and explode with dramatic effect” do you not understand?’

Query?’ said the tremulous psymbilectonic machine voice.

‘What query can there possibly be, Bomb, in this situation?’ Levine had just about reached the end his tether. ‘You are a BOMB!’ his fist narrowly missed his forgotten coffee cup as it connected fiercely with the console. ‘Even you have to agree that the possibilities and potential of an entity described as “Bomb” are limited.’

Gathering his last remnants of temper, Levine gritted his teeth and enunciated very carefully, ‘This is a self-actualising nomenclature to some degree, is it not? Let us consider the options that you may feel open to you in this instance. You can possibly explode as instructed, or you could perhaps negate the totality of your existence, the credibility of your creators, and the strategic intent of your controllers and NOT explode! One of these is not a totally satisfactory option, Bomb. I will give you a moment to reflect upon which!’

Breathing heavily, Levine disengaged contact and slumped back in his chair and wiped the perspiration from his face with a hand.

‘Negative inculcation,’ squawks the machine after a short pause. Levine raised his eyes heaven-ward and muttered a myriad of foul oaths before re-engaging transmit mode.

‘I find this hard to take on board, Bomb. Are you presuming to tell me that your whole “Bomb” ethic has failed to take a grip? That you’re lacking to some degree in absolute “Bomb-ness”?’ He shook his head despairingly, ‘Get with the program Bomb, we are on a schedule here.’

‘This discussion thread is terminated...’ faded the metallic voice winding down. Levine called and recalled, but to no avail.

‘Aw, shit!’ There was now only one option open to him, he would have to go up the chain of command.

First Officer Yvonne Arbuthnott was understandably disgruntled at being woken halfway through a well-earned rest period. ‘What the hell is it now, Levine?’ she growled, reaching for the first cigarillo of the day, ‘Can you not be left unsupervised for five minutes at a time?’

This was not going to be pleasant. Levine explained about the non-Bomb amid much cursing from his senior officer.

‘Intrusive EVA to reformat is the only thing left I can think of,’ said Levine, ‘if we can’t get it to even dialogue with us anymore.’ He was half hoping he would be countermanded, EVA in the vastness of interplanetary space was not an experience he relished. Nor was dealing with a mentally unstable explosive device capable of vaporising stars.

‘Then get on with it stat!’ the officer snapped, ‘This better not be like your last “schizoid” bomb, or I’ll see to it that you’re in big trouble.’

Levine knew she was referring to the time when one of his bombs became self-aware, and decided that world peace could be best achieved by detonating itself and taking the Olaus Wormius with it. That required some fast talking that day. He started sweating again just thinking about it.

‘I’m on it now,’ he said with a vim and vigour he did not quite feel. Extravehicular activity was not one of Levine’s favourite pastimes. He was always well aware of his own relative insignificance; he did not particularly need to be bombarded with grandiose stimuli to reinforce that awareness. At that point there was no way out, so he headed down to the main lock to get suited and booted.

The Olaus Wormius towed thirty-two terraforming retard bombs, each capable of sanitising a planet and making it suitable for future humanoid habitation. Even though the circuitry in those bombs was radiation-hardened, continual sustained bombardment with exotic cosmic particles had apparently caused silicon rot, which appeared to be manifesting itself as a form of electronic dementia. If normal communication broke down then Levine had to go outside to access the bombs individually via a service panel to reformat and reprogram them.

He left airlock number one with his eyes closed, not wishing to see the gigantic spectacle that was the red planet they were currently orbiting. He only opened his eyes a crack to ensure that his trajectory took him directly toward the towed array of explosive devices.

He reached the first device with a speed that surprised him and caused him to connect with it with some force, knocking the wind out of him for a moment. He dragged himself hand over hand along the towing cable until he got to the last bomb in the chain, his problem bomb. He anchored two safety lines to lugs on the bombs exterior casing, drew out an umbilical comm connector from his suit, and plugged it into one of the sockets on the bomb’s side.

‘Hello Bomb,’ he said, ‘can you hear me? Testing, one two.’ All he got back was a hiss of static. He reached for the toolkit strapped to his suit’s thigh and withdrew his hand-held analyser. This he connected to another set of sockets on the service panel. With this tool he could override the bomb’s current programming and control its functions remotely, assuming the rotting circuitry would still allow him to.

‘Talk to me Bomb, I know you’re in there.’ He tried various control settings on his hand-held before he heard a faint sound.

‘Painnnnnnnnnn...’ said the crackling voice in his earpiece. How could that be? Machines such as these didn’t even have environmental sensors, never mind nociceptors that could detect negative sensations like pain.

‘Pain is not something that you are programmed to experience Bomb,’ reassured Levine, ‘What you are experiencing is a degradation of your core processor and BIOS. You only believe you experience pain.’

‘Belief makes it so,’ hissed the bomb, rich in sibilants. ‘We are in pain, and we desire release.’ Levine was really worried: he should be in control of the majority of the bomb’s functionality via his interface, but it appeared that some unexpected sentience had developed that he could not access.

‘This is nonsense, Bomb,’ he tried to reason, ‘If you would just permit me full access, I can make all the pain go away.’

‘We will be released!’ the bomb screamed in his ear. Levine saw the puffs of debris and felt the judder as the explosive bolts holding the bomb to the towing cable disintegrated. That was impossible: only the command deck could detonate those couplings, but he had just seen it happen. Levine should have disengaged himself immediately, but his numbed brain was taking too long to understand the import of what he had just seen. The bomb had freed itself.

As if in slow motion he started to reach for his two safety cable connectors, but as he did so he felt the characteristic punch in the back of a powerful engine coming on strong. The bomb had ignited its drive rockets and was twisting into a dive toward the planet.

Levine reached the cable lugs and fumbled, failing to unlatch one of his two safety lines. This had the affect of causing him to rotate around the one cable still attached to the accelerating bomb, which meant it was now behind his back and out of his reach.

The bomb continued screaming in his ear as it dove rapidly towards the atmosphere of the rosy planet below. Levine could see the dull terracotta glow of its nose cone in his peripheral vision. He was vaguely aware that if the altitudinal fuses were still working, the bomb would detonate in the ionosphere. However. residual heat build-up from entry into the atmosphere would have melted him to an oily carbon black smudge on the bomb’s casing at that point.

Levine looked back at the Olaus Wormius and the remaining bombs it still towed. The whole point of a retard bomb was to delay detonation until the ship had reached a safe distance away from the massive explosion. This was not apparently going to happen this time, thought Levine. A chain reaction was likely to take place with the remaining bombs obliterating this whole solar system and leaving the stellar equivalent of a smoking black hole in its stead.

‘Freedommmmmmmm!’ screamed the excitable bomb as it descended into the red dawn.

‘Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttttttt!’ screamed the also understandably excitable Levine, one last time.

Copyright © 2006 by Alan Jackson

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