The pale, yellow numbers flickered to life, floating uneasily over the holo-disc. The resolution was marred by the device’s sudden shift of power from it’s sensors to its holo-circuitry. The image warbled again. Then, steady.
Derek Miller knew what it was. Knew when he had walked from his cramped quarters aboard the transport Cavalier and mistakenly entered the wrong cargo hold. It was a bomb. With a fifteen second countdown.
And suddenly, time slowed around him. Derek saw everything crawl by him, each action separated by a great space of nothing, elongated, distant, minutes turning into hours, seconds into eternity, each heartbeat echoing for days in his ears, his exhale lasting as long as a
storm, every particle of moisture from his breath separate and distinct from the others, time slowing, slowing...quieting...dragging...drifting...stretching....
Derek Miller saw the numbers change. Saw the transparent yellow digits dissolve into a new arrangement of numbers. 14. 14! What was he thinking? One second had already been wasted. One glorious, life-long second was gone, vanished, escaped into nothingness. Impossible to retrieve. Impossible to save. Gone. A million opportunities gone with it. Fourteen more in the front, one in the back, fourteen that could be touched, used, affected, one lost forever, untouched and gone, separated by time--
What had he been doing just a second ago? Nothing. Just a normal day, doing normal things, running a routine errand for work, trying to locate a TRD-2341 module that kept blowing in the communications array. It was Cargo Bay No. 778 that he had been looking for. He had taken a wrong turn and stumbled into No. 779. Simple as that. Nothing more. But on an interplanetary transport, even one as routine as his, simple mistakes could be fatal.
It had happened again. The number! What was he doing wasting time babbling like this? Two seconds gone now, the old analogy of time being like sand that slipped through one’s fingers suddenly slamming home with relevance. Gone forever. Thirteen more to go. Forget the rest, that’s all that’s important. Thirteen seconds. Enough.
Time slowed even more, if that was possible. He actually heard the last pump of blood still coursing through the caverns of tiny capillaries in his ear, a great, lingering explosion of white-capped blood. Time had slowed nearly to a standstill externally while his internal clock sped up. He needed to sit and think, sort through the myriad of images and thoughts flashing through his mind. But he knew he couldn’t.
He scanned the bomb. It consisted of three solid cylinders, all fastened together at both ends, the holo-disc attached to the center of the middle tube, proudly displaying those cursed numbers.
The digits stared back at Derek, waiting for a million slow nanoseconds to add up before changing again.
The entire package was a foot long and a little over six inches wide. It was smooth and silver, made from a metal he didn’t recognize.
The thought echoed in his head.
The metal was not from earth, he knew. It had to be alien.
Derek suddenly realized that his thoughts were digressing again. He couldn’t afford that. He had to keep moving, keep doing, never stopping. He only had
seconds left. Twelve seconds left!
He looked at the bomb again. He wanted to pick it up, get his hands on it, examine it, turn it over and study it. But it could have a leveling sensor attached, causing it to blow up in his hands if he so much as jostled it. Over before he started. Did he have a choice? The alternative was to sit on the sanitized floor of the ship, feel the engine’s gentle vibrations for twelve more seconds, and then close his eyes. Either way, the result was the same. Derek Miller had no choice.
He picked up the bomb and ignored his impulse to exhale in relief when nothing happened. There just wasn’t time. He pulled the bomb close to his face, noticed grooves in the ends, and popped all three caps off, the bomb’s insides sliding out in his hand. Derek found himself holding three tubes, the middle one clear, the outer ones filled with a green gas and a blue gas.
The outer cylinders connected to the middle cylinder by two tiny tubes, and all three connected to the holo-disc with a bevy of black wires. Derek had overheard rumors of bombs like this from officers in his district. At the appointed time, the two gases mix in the center tube, creating an incredibly unstable mass within itself that quickly transfers instability to all surrounding molecules, causing them to increasingly vibrate until they exploded. The chain reaction of more and more exploding molecules gained strength and continued until there were no molecules left. All occurring in the blink of an eye. Derek suddenly remembered Qeti IV in the Oliner system. The planet was completely destroyed by a similar bomb. It had taken only two minutes and 11 billion people were gone.
Derek Miller knew it would take much less time aboard the Cavalier, even though the ship was over two miles in diameter and carried nearly 15,000 people. Two of those were his wife, Marie, and five-year-old daughter, Kate. They had tried for nearly two years to have a child and nothing the VR docs did had worked. There was always the option of cybernetic implantation, but neither Derek nor Marie had felt right about it. And then, suddenly, nature kicked in, and with no explanation, no reason at all, Marie was pregnant. They had tried to have another child ever since, but had not been successful. The practicing had been fun, though. The had begun to make peace with the real possibility that they were only to have one child.
Which was fine with Derek. He didn’t think another kid could bring any more joy to his life than little Kate did, anyway. Her laugh, her smile, the taste of her cool hair in the morning, her tight grip as she held her daddy’s hand as they strolled through a park.
Derek and Marie had decided just a year ago to join the Cavalier. They had responded to a recruitment vid, asking for people to volunteer as colonists for Hermes, a new planet the United Nation’s Alliance had claimed. It was soon to be a major military outpost for the war and needed civilian workers.
Derek remembered the conversation well.
“Why not, Derek?” Marie had said. “It would be perfect for us.”
“Why would it be perfect?” Derek had responded. He was unsure.
“Just think of it. We would be the first inhabitants of this planet. We would grow it. It’s like being on the ground floor of a new world. It hurts me to say this, but I’m scared of raising Kate on Earth. There’s too much crime, too much paranoia, and too much killing. I want to move off-world.”
“But it’ll be a military outpost. And the war--”
“Will be over at any time, they just said on the vidbit this morning. The war will probably never reach us that far out. It’s ten solar systems away. And if it does, we’ll have the military surrounding us. What better place to be on than Hermes?”
And he knew she was right. He could tell by the solid look in her eyes, the way her mouth was set, creating tiny lines at the edge of her cheeks. They had signed up, along with 15,000 other people desperate to start a new life. The inside of the ship was designed to mimic the small town they would build when they landed on Hermes, complete with sunrise and sunset. Out of the year they had to spend on the Cavalier travelling, they had only two months left before reaching their new home.
Two months to go and Derek Miller sat in the cargo hold of the Cavalier, staring at a bomb that was to go off in a matter of seconds.
10, to be exact.
Derek cursed under his breath. Maybe he could prevent the gases from mixing.
He slammed the cylinders against the corner of a cargo bin. The bomb bounced off, harmlessly. He tried again, harder this time. Nothing. Not even a tiny puncture in a tube.
But he did notice something on one tube. Writing. The characters were foreign, abstract, very angular. His father had taught Derek when he was a young boy what those symbols meant: the enemy.
The Suldarians first made contact with Earth two decades ago, when Derek had been a boy. Nearly everyone on the planet welcomed the first contact with extra-terrestrial life. But Derek’s father wasn’t quite so easily swayed. As Derek got older, he thought his father had been prejudiced, but then news of Qeti IV got out and the aliens’ real agenda was apparent: domination. They had been testing weapons on other planets that they wanted to use against Earth.
Little was known about the Suldarians, even today. What had been pieced together was that they seemed to be a race of fighters—warriors, really—whose goal was the colonization of planets in order to continually expand their race. Earth was simply another marker on their journey.
And now they were putting bombs aboard civilian carriers. Life was life, whether civilian or non-civilian, and they would destroy all of it to keep another race from expanding. They would destroy his wife and child as they traveled through space to start a new life on an uncorrupted planet.
He couldn’t give up. He had to think of something, try something, anything. He couldn’t break the cylinders, that would have been too easy. And Derek knew he couldn’t risk randomly jerking out wires. The bomb would be rigged to go off if tampered with, sure enough. But what? What could he do? He was a communications array operator. What good would that do him now?
The sharp tang of sweat rose from his body. He felt sticky. It had only been six seconds since he’d discovered the bomb. It felt like six years.
The cargo bay was empty except for a few boxes and cartons scattered around. No tools, no weapons, nothing to use. Food supplies that had been stored here had already been emptied and used. The comm-station was only a few feet away, next to the door, but there was precious little time left to get to it, reach someone, explain the situation, and get help before the bomb went off. It might as well have been a mile away.
Derek flipped a lock of brown hair out of his eye. He felt stuck, his inaction gnawing at his soul and making him feel guilty. He should know what to do. He was in a starship on the way to inhabiting a planet. He should know what to do!
He had nothing to lose. Still holding the bomb, he grabbed half of the black wires—then froze. His daughter’s laughing face flooded his mind, momentarily paralyzing him. No, he had to risk it, they were all dead anyway.
He pulled the wires and they all came free with a sickening snap. Nothing happened. He grabbed the rest of the wires. Pulled. Nothing. Twelve dead decoys lay on the floor at his feet. Derek Miller looked at the hologram numbers, proudly perched on top of the bomb.
He felt like a fool. The wires were there for someone to waste time on. And that someone was Derek Miller. The holo-disc wasn’t hard-wired to the bomb. It was transmitting the time, probably to some microchip in one of the three tubes, maybe the center one, and in seven seconds it would transmit a death-code for 15,000 people. But what good would knowing this do? Nothing. Except bring him one second closer to death.
What else was there to do? He couldn’t break the tubes, the wires were gone, there was nothing to defuse, not enough time to call for help, no tools, no weapons, nohwere to run. The entire ship will soon be gone, burned and destroyed, this whole episode a mistake, an error, a wrong turn down a wrong corridor through a wrong door into the wrong cargo bay, his mere presence starting the bomb’s countdown, or had it been going for months now, good-bye Kate, good-bye Marie, good-bye Hermes, good-bye dreams and hopes....
No. He couldn’t give up. NO! He would not waste six seconds. NO! That was a lifetime!
Derek Miller scanned the cargo bay again, hoping he might have missed something. Same thing. Boxes. Crates. All empty. Nothing else. He hadn’t missed anything. He scanned the floor, wall, ceiling, wall again, comm station, door, floor, wait--
What was that? The door. Two doors. Double doors.
Of course! That was it! Double doors! The doorway was used as an airlock. Derek couldn’t believe he had forgotten about it.
Cargo bays lined the center perimeter of the entire ship, full of supplies upon departure. When emptied, they were jettisoned to save on fuel and then picked up on the return journey. It would have been the easiest place to hide a bomb, especially if the Suldarians had inside knowledge of which cargo bays would be emptied near the end of the journey.
Each cargo bay was riddled with tiny jets that gently guided the bay away from the ship when empty. But in the case of some emergency, there was a safety feature built in: The jets could be fired in a furious eruption to launch the cargo hold quickly.
Which was what Derek intended to do. But he had only four seconds.
He dropped the bomb, heard it clatter on the steel floor behind him, and crossed the few feet to the door. He flipped up a panel next to the comm-station labeled “Emergency Release.”
He stopped. Did he have time to open the doors, step outside, close the doors, and launch the bay? He wasn’t sure. He tried to figure out how long it would take in his head, but his mind was numb. The timing was too close. What if he tried and failed? The entire ship would be destroyed. He thought of his wife and daughter. Would the risk of failure be worth the chance of living with them? Was that too selfish? Was that too much to ask? Yes. Yes it was. He would be gambling with their lives, and fifteen thousand others. Marie and Kate could live, he was sure, should live. Derek had died the moment he had stumbled on to the bomb. Period.
Derek Miller knew what he had to do. He reached out and yanked the lever. There was no warning, no red lights, no klaxon. Just a jarring slam throughout the entire cargo bay, a blast that threw Derek into the wall, and made the room around him shudder fiercely. And then he was floating in the sudden weightlessness of a gravity-free atmosphere.
The bomb floated next to him, as the cargo bay shot through space, distancing itself, now a half-mile, now a whole mile, mile-and-a-half, now two, from the Cavalier. Derek reached out and grabbed the bomb. It was cool to the touch.
Time seemed to slow again. He saw the single digit fade, line of resolution by line of resolution, fading, dissolving, actually seeing the numbers slowly change!, until it was replaced with a giant zero.
Derek Miller didn’t feel the explosion at all.