“NO! Shut up! You can’t say that word!” Harry just about stopped himself from slapping her. “We have never, are not, and will never use or used that. It’s not an option.” There was a silence in the lab that echoed somehow.
“If you’d let me finish,” Ida said quietly. “I was going to say ‘nuclear aside’. I’m aware we can’t use it. I would never suggest it. But we have a deadline, and we need to think of something. What we already have isn’t going to be enough.”
“I can’t even believe we’re thinking about this. I can’t believe any of us are even considering taking this on!” From the corner, Stephan’s meltdown was threatening properly. Since getting the contract, he’d been a nervous wreck.
“Because if we don’t do this, we all die and then they will choose the nuclear stuff. Whatever we create, even if we just start planning, gives us time. And right now, time is all we can guarantee.” Ida licked her lips. “We can use what we already have, and then streamline it, contain it further, then add a fucktonne of explosive. Castatinine would make it bigger.”
“And less stable.” Harry pressed his lips together. “It has to be stable enough to go the full thousand kilometers without exploding prematurely. And stable enough to be sent to the front lines.”
“Then I guess we do it and pray our calculations are correct?” Ida looked at him. The rest of the room, all twenty of the scientists gathered around, were silent. They watched in a mixture of horror and awe, desire to know what would happen and the desire to run as far away as possible. It was a space agency, but designing rockets was their forte.
And their Prime Minister wanted the biggest and most destructive rocket there had ever been – one that wouldn’t result in a nuclear winter in the entire of the northern hemisphere. And they’d been given a week to get it done, too. A week to calculate, test theories, and have a prototype prepared to test. TEST!
“I’m just not sure how I feel about doing this without a test.” Harry looked down.
“And you think we’ll get clearance to test this thing in the ocean? We don’t have time, Harry.” Ida shuffled the papers in front of her, and turned to the group of people watching. “Get to it, guys. You all have your assignments waiting. We need to have a report ready by Thursday, so I think it’ll be an all-nighter.”
The night they all spent working on the missile turned into two nights, none of them sleeping much longer than an hour here and there when they could. The calculations were triple and quadruple checked, well before they started putting elements together. By Thursday, a report was ready, but the results, Ida knew, were not what the Prime Minister would want to hear.
“Dr Devon, please update us on the progress of the Alpha Missile.” The Prime Minister’s piercing green eyes locked on Ida, who stepped up to the podium. The internal cameras were on her, the eyes of the other ministers roaming over her. Harry hadn’t wanted to speak. Ida was the one with the people skills. But in this instance, sex didn’t sell – she didn’t have the mental stamina to make the details of her report sexy.
“Thank you, Prime Minister. I... am afraid I don’t have the news you’d have liked to have.” Ida turned the page of the hastily-drafted report she’d put together with the team not one hour before. “We’ve prepared some calculations, and in theory a bomb this size isn’t feasible for long-distance travel. It’s unstable, and might last maybe an hour after production. If it has to be moved, we’d prefer to move it as little as possible before detonation, maybe we could carry out a launch here in Esteria -”
“Then what have you been spending your time doing?” The Prime Minister leaned forward. “I was told that a bomb of this size is feasible. There are nuclear deterrents which are far larger than what I’m asking of you.”
“Yes, sir, you are correct about the nuclear warheads – but nuclear is easier to maintain stability. A bomb this large would require an entirely new missile design, not doable in one week.” Ida licked her lips. Her hands shook. Her head felt light. “And even if we did manage to create something, we’d have to test it to make sure it wouldn’t explode prematurely. We could guarantee a functioning bomb at half the requested size, but I’m still unsure -” Ida stopped as the Prime Minister raised his hand.
“Half... the requested size. Are you aware of what our objectives are within this war, Dr Devon?” Ida nodded. “So then you’ll know that time is of the essence, and we do not have the ability to risk anything other than a complete levelling of their entire compound.” The Prime Minister gestured to a map of the expansive military base he was hoping to conquer three countries over. Ida looked down. “If we send one bomb, they won’t be able to stop it. They don’t have the capability to stop a hypersonic missile of the size I’ve requested. But, smaller missiles, they can deter. Do you see the problem, Dr Devon?”
“I do, sir.”
“Good. So, continue with your presentation.” The Prime Minister sat back, fingers steepled. Ida cleared her throat and sighed.
“Well... we’d also prefer to test the missile first. That would need clearance for the Pacific, since the Oberforth Strait is too small for a castatinine detonation. We’d estimate to be ready for testing in around a week.”
“Testing?” the Prime Minister didn’t look happy. “I want the functional missile ready for the deadline set. Not a test.”
“I understand, sir, but if we don’t test the missile beforehand, we won’t know what to fix to ensure it can actually cover Tarelia, Bushkestan and Fenizia before detonation. Those three countries will be wiped out if we’re not careful.”
“The governments of those countries are already puppets of the Golborstia regime. Any losses there would be a win, undoubtedly.” The Prime Minister started to laugh, and the ministers around the room did the same. “The original deadline still stands. I want the missile ready to go by Tuesday.”
Ida was escorted from the podium. She felt sick. No test on a missile that size would be a catastrophe waiting to happen. Orders, however, were orders, and if she didn’t comply, she didn’t want to think about what would happen to her family and friends... she bit back her tears. Time wasn’t an option. She had to think of something.
The next few days were horrendous. Large amounts of explosives were imported to the vast hangars usually used for the assembly of rockets destined for space, handled carefully – one false move, and the entire lot would go up. And that would be the end of Esteria. The entire country would be levelled – and probably the surrounding countries. The Prime Minister didn’t seem to understand that the explosives used in this kind of bomb would burn so hot, and stick to everything... it wouldn’t leave a single thing behind. Discovery of the element castatinine had been the biggest mistake to science since... well, since anything. Ida worked with it for rocket fuelling purposes, but the idea to turn it into a warhead had been highly contested by the world’s governments. Esteria was the only country to demand its use. The Doomsday clock’s tick-tock was louder than ever.
Tuesday morning’s sunrise made Ida and Harry feel sick. The result of their work was wheeled out into the cool morning air. The stars hadn’t even left the sky yet. Harry licked his lips nervously as he ran his pen along the endless list of checks they’d spent the night completing.
“It’s ready.” His voice was barely there. “Time to tell the Prime Minister.”
“It’ll reach Golborstia. It has to.”
“Let’s pray it does.” Harry turned to the workmen who were ready to pull the missile to the launchpad, where it would begin its journey to Golborstia, and explode at the right moment. They’d had to opt for a slow-release drip system of fuel, to ensure that there was enough thrust to make it fly, but as little heat in the separation chamber as possible. That chamber staying cool was vital; even half a degree too hot, and the entire missile would explode. As for the launch window, the Prime Minister had fifty-four minutes to launch before the external temperature would be too hot, and... kaboom.
“Thirty minutes before this gets aborted. I’m not happy with how hot it’s getting out here.” Maria ran over with an ambient thermometer in her hand. “It’s not following the forecast. Where’s the Prime Minister?!”
“He’s not picking up,” Harry muttered. “And we can’t launch without his say-so.”
“And we can’t abort without telling him.” Ida stared at the white metallic structure standing on the launch pad. On the plus side, if it did explode prematurely, they’d be dust before they knew what had happened. The sheer force of the energy release alone would split them all on a cellular level.
“I’m going to say fifteen minutes. No longer. Otherwise we’re all dead.”
The Prime Minister hadn’t answered the phone because he’d been in the car on the way there. He stepped from the car, grinning. Harry and Ida ran over.
“Sir, we have minutes before we need to abort this. It will explode if the outside temperature reaches -”
“Then go ahead and launch it. Can we watch from here?” The Prime Minister grinned. Harry shook his head and pulled him into the bunker. The door slammed shut.
“We don’t have time – we have to abort it now! It won’t get into the upper atmosphere fast enough to maintain stable temperature!” Maria was panicking.
“Abort nothing! Launch it now!” The Prime Minister hissed. He hit the launch button. He didn’t wait for any of the pre-launch checks. He didn’t wait to see if there was anyone on the launch pad. He didn’t wait. The rocket’s engines burst to life, and the entire thing lifted off smoothly.
“We’re all fucking dead,” Harry breathed. He turned to Ida, who nodded.
“Sir - SIR! Reports of a missile incoming from the south!” the vizier burst through the doors, interrupting the summit meeting. “It’s a big one! Impact in less than half an hour!”
“What? Where from?!” The president of Golborstia stood, paling.
“Our anti-missile systems will take care of it. Thank you for the update, Roston.” The President sat back down, closing his eyes. Esteria would stop at nothing. But he couldn’t shake the sinking feeling he had about this missile. Roston never panicked... why would he start now?
Ida and Harry watched the cloud trail of the missile with the resignation of those on Death Row. The trajectory was off. It was headed too close to the nuclear facilities to the north-west, which it was supposed to avoid. But the team hadn’t had enough time to figure anything out. Maria read statistics from a screen.
“We’re still in the blast zone. It’s not moving fast enough. It’s also dropping from the sky.”
“Yep.” Ida didn’t look up as Maria updated them. “Look at the trail.”
“Good work, ladies, gentlemen,” said the Prime Minister, smiling. Harry turned and punched him so hard, he staggered backwards.
“Fuck you. I’m going to take in the last clear blue sky I’ll ever fucking see.” Harry left the bunker. Ida followed. “We should have taken him out when we had the chance.”
“I know. But we’re better than he is.” She gave a shrug. “I love you, Harry. I’m glad I’ve been able to share some of my life with you.”
“Same here.” Ida kissed his cheek and Harry smiled softly. He put his arm around her as, one by one, the other scientists came out of the bunker.
“Dr Devon? Dr Pendle?” Both Harry and Ida turned around.
“Friends... it’s been an honour. Truly. The work we’ve done recently wasn’t our choice. We know that. But it has been a privilege to work with you all.” Ida smiled gently. Harry cleared his throat.
“I second that. It’s been a real treat working with you all.”
The missile dropped from the sky well before it was supposed to. The untested flight system, designed to keep the final explosion safe, was failing. Not enough fuel was being released to keep the missile airborne. A simple, single test would have highlighted the single number error in the equation. The missile dropped further, and the chemicals in the head of the missile started to mix together. The castatinine destabilised faster than predicted because of the ambient heat. The explosion it created was spectacular, causing a fireball and an energy pulse that engulfed the sky, lighting it on fire, and consuming the entirety of Fezia below, and the nuclear facilities with it. The immediate destruction of the nuclear facilities created an immediate nuclear blast that took out the entire Unision Continent.
Not a single person felt the blast.
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Science Fiction. Awesome! It kept me on the edge of my seat how you built the tension in this. I hated that it had to end with total oblivion, but that's what the prompt asked for and you certainly delivered! The description I liked best was: "The Prime Minister sat back, fingers steepled." Made me think of that old nursery rhyme "Here is the church, here is the steeple..." (which was quite fitting now that I think about it, considering the man's childish recklessness with power). Very well done.
Thanks Gip!! I really enjoyed writing this one. I was also sad that it had to end, and I hated that the actual story ended where it did! I wanted to carry on, but I didn't have enough word count! It means a lot that you've enjoyed this! I imagine the Prime Minister being so deluded that he would actually think he could survive ANYTHING, including a total destruction bomb... I guess that's also kind of current affairs, right?