Agent Roderick Lumsdaine was following
his subject, a young man named Rex Riptide. He knew a great deal
about Mr. Riptide; a great deal more, in fact, that Rex knew that
anyone knew about him. In contrast, Rex knew only that MI6 knew his
name, and that he might be under suspicion of constructing dangerous
technologies. That was all. Agent Lumsdaine knew a great deal more
than this, and the thing to which it summed was that Rex Riptide
could be an asset to Royal interests.
Roderick was following his subject
discreetly. This meant that he was within visual line-of-sight no
more than one standard deviation from the mean amount of time that
any other student was within Rex's line-of-sight. He was sneaky in
that he was utterly devoid of sneak. He met Rex's eye as often as
anyone else, he accidentally got in his way on the hallways to the
exact normal degree, and he followed Rex's path no farther than the
majority of the other students did. He was utterly indistinguishable
from a regular student, anonymous and unnoticed. This was to minimize
his probability of detection. Given what he knew about his subject,
however, it would not surprise him to learn that his presence was
It served the interests of the United
Kingdom for him to make contact with Mr. Riptide. Still, he needn't
tip his hand just yet. An impetus for said contact would decrease the
amount that Rex would know that he knew.
Rex was walking. He did that
frequently. It was how he moved from place to place. It was probable
that, this particular walk, Agent Lumsdaine would not have a chance
to do anything. He was ready for that. It was also possible, though,
that Rex would do something out-of-the-ordinary, giving Roderick the
chance to make contact.
Hold on a tic, here was something odd.
There was something on top of a display case. It looked like a
polished-brass pocketwatch, except that it was endowed with four
polished-brass, articulated limbs, on two of which it currently
balanced. It was like something out of H. G. Wells. Roderick watched
it as it swayed, if he anthropomorphised it, like it was drunk. Rex
had seen it, too. There was no visual acknowledgement, but the
latter's stride length and frequency was adjusted to bring him to
footfall-at-minimum-distance. Suddenly a sway of the little device
went too far, and it toppled over the edge of the case onto the
hallway floor below.
At this, without breaking stride, Rex
simply stepped on it and stopped. He then gave a heart wrenching
performance of a man bending down to tie his shoe. Truly, it was
brilliantly done. He really made Roderick feel
the shoe-tying. A tear almost came to his eye. Then Rex stood up, and
the agent discovered that he must have pocketed the little shiny
device without appearing to do so. That was impressive. No one
slight-of-handed an agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. A text
message emanated from Rex's cell phone to his assistant. "Small
containment issue?" it read.
was Roderick's opportunity. He caught up to Rex in a manner that
anyone could have seen, were they looking for it.
morning, Mr. Riptide," he began. Surprise came onto Rex's face.
Roderick continued, not knowing if it was real, "What do you know
about Project Pluto?"
polite fellow with a British accent took about 1.5e3 seconds to
explain things. After that, Rex still had some lectures to attend. He
didn't get on it right away. He sent a text to his housemates that
read "Pluto is loose. Meet at house this evening. Also, who is
cooking dinner tonight?" They all responded with a "Not me",
except Dr. Polski, who replied "Not I."
said Rex under his breath. "Guess it's Friday." Rex did not like
to cook dinner.
Rex walked home
that day. The buses were apparently running only sporadically. As a
result, there were several symptoms of the City grinding to a rough
halt. Why did the people not even blink at entire city blocks held
siege by maniacal madmen, but when the buses were running slower than
normal, they panicked? It was just an effect that living in the City
had, Rex supposed.
It was a long walk
home. He passed any number of increasingly concerned citizens waiting
at bus stops. The street was swept clean, as it always was. The fire
hydrants along the sidewalk, at double the area-density of other
cities due to the high incidence of natural disaster, were all newly
painted a bright red. The sidewalk squares were not cracked, and any
that were were quickly replaced by new ones. There were never any
potholes, dips, discontinuities, or anything of the like in the road,
as the City had raised and supported an army of maintenance and
construction workers who worked around the clock to rebuild the
buildings and infrastructure that the frequent acts of destruction
that plagued the City often leveled. It was a pristine city in which
to drive or walk.
this on days when he found it necessary to get around on foot. It was
dark by the time he was done with his classes, but the people at the
closest bus stop suggested the irregularities in the schedule. Their
number passed the threshold at which it became less likely that the
bus simply hadn't yet come, and the stop had simply built up a
reasonable population to be emptied when it arrived. This was too
many. Hence his urban hike.
As he rounded the
walk to his house, he allowed his feet to once again find the correct
pattern of tiles on which to step to enable the house to accept his
password-image. The infrasonic hum that indicated its perennial
security considerations dimmed somewhat as he passed through, the
house sensing his and only his presence. As he walked through the
door, something came to him.
It wasn't Friday.
He'd gone to Wednesday's classes. That meant that it was someone
else's day to cook. He checked his phone once again. Dr. Polski, his
assistant, the Atomic Girl... They'd all responded in the negative.
It was NASA Lass who hadn't responded.
To the untrained
eye, the house was empty. To the most sophisticated instruments at
the disposal of the public, the house was also empty. Rex suspected
that there existed instruments in governmental hands that could
detect the presence of his roommates in the basement-lab, but hadn't
gotten confirmation, and the instruments certainly couldn't elucidate
any activities therein.
Rex walked down the
creaking stairs to his basement. The house atop the lab was an old
one, still maintained by a landlord who had no idea of the material
worth of the components beneath those foundations. Whenever a light
broke, or a fuse burned out, or the plumbing malfunctioned, it was
the landlord that was called. It wouldn't do for him to one day
realize that those kids up in the house had needed only a tiny
fraction of his maintenance time.
In the basement,
cold because it was simply underground, and certainly no colder than
one would expect as the lab was very thermally insulated, Rex took a
moment. The poured concrete floor was rough but ablative to some
extent under his shoes. Grit slid in front of him with every step. A
washing machine and dryer were in the corner, unused and dust-ridden.
Stillness was the the word that rose to the top of the gestalt that
Rex perceived, marred only slightly by the ever-present infrasonic
hum of denial-of-area defenses outside. All that stopped when he
entered the lab.
Even in the first
outer-airlock, activity abounded. The motion of immense, sealed doors
spoke of power being expended, and the rush of air and UV light were
like hyperactive versions of the real outside. By the time he was
through to the lab-proper, the feeling of the basement was gone to
him. Dr. Polski was busily spinning strange matter into a disk for
the purposes of some unknown avenue of thought. The Atomic Girl was
going over the video data received from an experiment, and was
pinning down the exact rate at which some monster of hers had
devoured something very inert. Rex's assistant was chasing down a
little brass contrivance of springy motion and sharp noise. Gil
Eggars was... uh... there.
Why was Gil there?
The journalist had stayed with them for a few days after the Summit
incident, but there was a large gap of time of which Rex had no
memories on account of having died. He wasn't entirely sure why Gil
The Atomic Girl
seemed the least indisposed at that moment. Rex approached her. "So
where's NASA Lass?" he asked. She turned, and blinked once to
re-acclimate herself to reality.
she responded to your text yet?" She said.
wait five minutes", she said cryptically. Rex's ire rose. He
disliked this game. The Atomic Girl had information he needed, that
would affect his future actions and therefore his utility function in
a meaningful way, and she was withholding it. She wasn't justified in
need that information to determine exactly the status of dinner. This
isn't accomplishing anything." Dinner was in many ways the most
important meal of the day. Not only the substance but also the timing
of the ingested food determined so many offset-factors that he used
in his day-to-day decision process that delays in this vital
information could cost him dear seconds of experiment time. Just then
his cell phone registered a text message.
He flipped it open.
"Sorry for the speed-of-light delay. Did you forget where I am?
Someone else has to cook today. -NL. PS don't let AG get to you."
Oh right. NASA Lass
wasn't there. She was at the distance-limit of human capability,
discounting what Rex had whipped up in the machine shop that one
time. "Then who is cooking dinner?" The Atomic Girl shrugged.
Apparently she was really enjoying the disparity in how much they
valued the meal. Rex was not about to tolerate this needless
inefficiency. Making fun of him personally was one thing. Detriment
to his research was another. He turned red, and opened his mouth
again to speak.
Gil beat him to it.
"Don't worry, Rex. I'll cook today. You know, you really shouldn't
let her get to you like this. As far as I know she's the only thing
Rex grilled him for
several decaseconds on the specifics of the meal he planned, then
satisfied with the answers, broke off interaction and glided over to
one of his machines. He'd allotted a certain amount of time to this
particular device, and when that time was up he moved on to his
next-most-important current endeavor, down one of the
radially-arranged corridors. As he was padding away from the large,
Ikea-furnished central room, he called back over his shoulder, "Oh,
and Gil? After dinner we're planning how to take down Pluto".
Gil shook his head.
Pluto? That couldn't be right. Wasn't there only just a big effort
from these guys to do something with respect to Pluto? It had
something to do with NASA Lass, right? He shook again.
Just then Rex's
assistant came over. She must have seen the confusion on his face.
"It's ok, Gil. He's not talking about the dwarf-planet. Project
Pluto was some big government deal. Do you need help with dinner?"
Rex's assistant was
literally the nicest person Gil had ever met. There was no
competition when it came to purity of will, he was sure. How Rex had
ended up with this inexplicably decent person instead of some awful
engineer with a head full of cogs was beyond him.
Actually that's not
quite true. He'd been told this story before, something about her
past, and super-villainy? Though that didn't sound right, either. How
could this person be a super-villain? She was, again literally, the
person farthest away from super-villain that he knew. Though just
this moment she might have been accidentally getting in the way with
all of these little bug-guys she constructed out of brass and steel.
Rex had warned her about keeping them contained before, but they just
got out again.
thanks, I'll be fine. Plus, Rex factored in my own preparatory
techniques when he extrapolated out his own state-of-mind after
eating dinner." Gil was half joking when he said this, but Rex had
surprised him before. Still, Gil was sad to see her turn and once
again begin poking into corners with a broom, trying to flush out a
little clanking metal machine.
was some good food, Gil. Now, gather around, every one." Rex was
enjoying the physiological effects of a good meal on his system. Gil,
on the other hand, was less than enthused at Rex's treatment of his
meal. It had begun when he'd pulled out the bomb-calorimeter and
demanded 1.3 times the amount he'd been served. Luckily Dr. Polski
did not want to eat all of his, which was also infuriating to Gil. He
sat in the back of the dining room, farthest away from the
The whiteboard was
a long panel of showerboard that they'd obtained from a Home Depot.
Anything else would have aroused suspicion in the landlord or one of
the average number of visitors they entertained at the house. Rex
uncapped a black marker, the only kind he ever used, and began.
is a nuclear powered ramjet. Any ideas?"
That was it. Gil
blinked for a moment. Was that it? What did that even mean? "Wait a
second, Rex. For those of us who aren't technically oriented, can we
get the back story?"
Rex made a point of
looking around at the phrase 'who aren't technically oriented'. Nonetheless,
he began on a new track in the exact same tone of voice.
was a government contract at the University. A lot of its simulation
time was on University computers, and a lot of its code-monkeying was
on University brains. This made it squarely within our reach. To put
it shortly, it's our fault."
Rex knew that, were
the world perfect, those who caused problems would be chiefly
responsible for their resolution. Since he'd been more interested in
this particular project than he wanted to let on, he'd been a large
part of its success. Surreptitiously optimizing code on the
supercomputer clusters was the most direct he'd ever gotten. Most of
his work on the matter was sneaking into graduate student lounges and
posing as a tired worker, feaux-unintentionally providing some
valuable insight into the project in an offhand, tangential manner.
More than once his subjects hadn't even picked up on his gentle
hinting as to how to proceed. But in total, he calculated that he'd
more than tripled the project's probability of success. Any problems
it caused were squarely his responsibility. He continued.
is an air-cooled fission pile." A glance at Gil got a nod in
return. "It channels the expansion of the rapidly heated air into a
nozzle to produce thrust." Another glance at Gil. "The concept is
simple. What makes it stand out is the scale. The reactor puts out on
the order of 5e8 watts." Dr. Polski choked on the mention of this
datum, indicating to Rex that he had not, in fact, read the briefing.
"It flies at Mach 3.0 at an altitude of around 50 meters." Dr. Polski
had not yet recovered from his fist coughing fit when this detail hit
him. "And was designed to carry a payload of hydrogen bombs. All of
these details are in the message I emailed to everyone earlier
today." He looked meaningfully at Dr. Polski.
Gil piped up. "What
does it look like?"
do you mean?"
you told us numbers that are supposed to mean how dangerous or
powerful it is, but they don't really tell me anything. So, what does
it look like when it flies? How big is its trail? Can you see it from
a finite element wireframe structure in the brief..." Rex was
genuinely puzzled. What did it matter what it looked like? And more
importantly, "Yes, you can see it from the ground. But not for
long. If you're within a large radius, the radiation kills you. If
you're within a second, smaller radius, the heat from the exhaust
kills you first. And if you're within a third, smaller yet radius,
you get killed by the shockwave of a multi-ton aircraft traveling
supersonically at treetop levels. Does that answer your question?"
Gil didn't want to
press further. This gave him a little bit of what he'd wanted to
learn. It was a nightmare missile, every aspect of which was death
incarnate. He didn't say so to Rex, however. His host didn't seem to
appreciate his turn of phrase.
Dr. Polski then
took his turn to talk. "Your text message just said 'Pluto is
loose'. How did this happen, and how did you come upon this
sighed. Of course this information was in the brief. And of course
the Doctor knew this. And of course the Doctor felt no shame
whatsoever in knowingly admitting to not having read the brief. "I
was approached by an agent of the United Kingdom. Some detective work
put him at number 002 in MI6. Roderick Lumsdaine. He gave me the
info, apparently knowing I'd class its solution as a moral
imperative. And yes, details for exactly how the fact that MI6 know
about us changes security measures is in the brief. Also in the brief
is the conditions under which the Pluto hardware was stolen,
launched, and made to hold course over a small region in the
Pacific." Now for the unbelievable part, "And it has two
passengers, one of whom is unwilling."
Rex was regretting
the wasted time more and more. If only people actually read what he
wanted them to... He began again: "Project Pluto is a nuclear
powered ramjet. Any ideas?"
options, blowing it up with missiles, poisoning its air intake with a
neutron absorber, poisoning its air intake with a neutron-fissile
substance (which if proposed by anyone else would have accompanied a
maniacal laugh), blowing it up with lasers, blowing it up with
missiles, blowing it up with particle beams, blowing it up with [x],
were undesirable because of the presence of the passengers. This
forced the group to think more creatively. Before long, they had
several workable solutions, none of which had a preliminary
probability of success, renormalized with the probability that the
world would still exist tomorrow, higher than 0.2, and several of
which would lower this figure for successive attempts.
right guys. Let it simmer and get back to me when you've got
something." Rex knew that this was not something a perfect
utilitarian mind would do, but alternating iterative improvement with
dissociative creativity had worked inexplicably well in the past. It
was how they did things.
Rex was sitting in
lecture, practicing looking bored enough to pass. His phone
registered a text message. "Got an idea. Come to bio lab in 10
min." It was from the Atomic Girl. She knew he had class right now,
and would still be in class in ten minutes. Still, he was behind on
his leaving-class-early quota, and though there was a sizable portion
of students who never left class early, this trait was not correlated
with the other traits he had been cultivating. Those students tended
to pay visible attention in class, type up their homeworks, take 1.1
pages of handwritten, "college-ruled" notes or 30 lines of
10-point typed notes per lecture. Rex did not want to be subject to
The Atomic Girl's
bio lab was a section of the enormous cavern under the University. It
was dug when the City was threatened by a creature of monstrous
proportions, and NASA Lass had discovered the hard way that it could
burrow. Rex and company had subsequently reinforced the cavern and given it
those Ikea-bought touches of home that one would expect from a giant
underground research laboratory.
Rex had to wait
until there were no students around before querying a stone gargoyle
in the school of fine arts on campus. Rex probably went to the school
of fine arts more often than a technical major normally does, but it
was within reason.
The gargoyle's eyes
glowed, an unnecessary and potentially dangerous feature about which
he'd have to talk to the Atomic Girl later, and it swung out of his
path on an extraordinarily well lubricated track. The whole thing
can't have produced more noise than a student simply stumbling and
regaining his/her step. Rex stepped through and was immediately faced
with another choice: elevator or winding, Gothic-style spiral
staircase? He obviously went for the staircase. What use was
efficiency when you didn't have style? (On a more accurate note, he
personally was more efficient descending stairs than an elevator was)
The dingy, dark
staircase that was so continuous with the Gothic gargoyle gradually
gave way to more girly themes. In the stead of knobbly, rough, dark
stone lining the walls, smoother pink marble dominated. Where before
the way was lit by harsh incandescent bulbs (you couldn't really
expect flaming torches), here it was illuminated by soft, tasteful
wall fixtures. The effect was gradual, so much so as to be subtle. He
was quite impressed.
there you are. Do you realize how many minutes late you are?" said
the Atomic Girl when he rounded the last bend.
Rex was early by 20
seconds. He knew it. She knew it. "You said you have something for
me?" He let it go. For better or worse, she was good company.
The Atomic Girl
stepped over to a thick glass vacuum-flask that might have been at
home in the dingy castle that the top of the staircase imitated.
Inside its rarefied environment was another thick glass container,
holding something dark, either a liquid or a fine powder. "I give
you your solution. This is my latest creation. Watch."
She took a pocket
calculator from some recess of the superhero costume she insisted on
wearing even now. She slid it into a shallow tray in the base of the
vacuum-flask and twisted an archaic brass valve. There was a
momentary hiss, and the calculator was in. One more actuation of some
old control surface caused the innermost flask to open, and the
substance inside, now plainly liquid, poured onto the calculator. The
Atomic Girl, in the meantime, put on a smile that made Rex believe
that the world was full of rainbows and unicorns. She was obviously
quite enthused with her creation.
a microorganism. This one will perform only a relatively simple task
with the circuitry of the calculator, but it's just a
proof-of-concept. The next generation will be hot-programmable, or
even take directions over the EM spectrum! Now look closely at what
Rex did so, and
registered dispassionately that the organism had seeped into the case
of the calculator. The screen turned on. After a moment, the
standby-zero was replaced by the numeral 5. Then 1. Then 3, 8, 0, 0,
and finally 8. "Boobies", read Rex. "Very clever."
His companion did
her very best to look injured by the implication. "Just because you
have your mind in the gutter doesn't mean you can sully my innocent
ears with your dirty words. Is nothing sacred to you, Rex? It's just
like my papa told me, 'men are scum'." Her face suddenly lit up as
though flowers had dropped from the ceiling, and she was unable to
control her excitement when she said, "But what do you think of the
organism? Did I win, or did I win?"
I shoot it with neutron radiation? Pluto will be extraordinarily
if you have a source with you," said Rex's housemate, clearly
underestimating the devices Rex wore around his waist. "Wait, stop!
They won't survive!" she shouted when he took her in earnest,
moving a hand to his one-shot neutron beam nestled into a USB flash
drive. Rex's face fell. He'd really wanted this to be the answer.
Sure, it would give her something to gloat about, but that didn't
stop him from seeing the utility of the thing.
at it, Girl. Maybe some radiodurans
into the mix, perhaps? Also, your calculator is smoking."
can tell me how to do my job when you've come up with a better idea,"
she quipped back, completely ignoring the fine curls of particulate
matter emanating from bio-hacked calculator. "This is the one, Rex.
Keep that in mind."
See you tonight. I believe you are cooking." Hah. Like 'this is the
one, Rex' would sway him. Her proposed solution stood on its own
merit. He escalated the spiral staircase in thought, wondering how to
find out what she was cooking for dinner without having to ask her
Another text registered on his phone
when he was done with a lecture. It was from his assistant, who knew
his schedule and didn't bother him when he was in class. "I have
something for the project. Come to your machine shop."
Rex had a conundrum: walk directly
across a courtyard to the building which housed the machine shop, or
take the long way around, staying indoors the entire way but staying
out of the harsh midday sunlight. It was approximately three times
more distance, but walking through sunlight in the summer was a
larger factor more discomfort than walking indoors. It came down to
the time saved. The gain of a few seconds was simply not enough to
justify taking the shorter trip. He hoped his assistant would
Upon entrance to the shop, he was
greeted with quite a sight. Six of the little spring-and-piston
contraptions that his assistant had been constructing and improving
were in a clear box, acting in a rather coordinated manner. Three
were sawing a wooden 2X4 into cubes roughly 0.02m on a side. The next
two were piling them into a trigonal pyramid. The last was
maneuvering a relatively bulky bottle of Elmer's wood glue around the
pyramid, fastening the cubes into place. Every so often this one
would stumble, lie for one to two seconds, then pick itself up and
continue. The whole effect was rather entrancing, though Rex had yet
to see the most impressive aspect of the demonstration.
Then he caught it. The box that
contained them was lead-lined, and in the center was a neutron
source. From the scintillating tubes positioned to span the walls, he
could see that the shining brass contrivances were putting up with a
significant portion of what they'd expect around the Pluto.
His assistant turned, beaming, and
moved to embrace him. Even before he had a chance to stop her, she,
in behavior born from habit, ran through her relative
contact-hazards. "Biological 0.0, Chemical 0.0, Radiological 0.01".
Rex was happy with the numbers. A tiny radiological risk was well
worth a warm hug from his assistant. As they grew closer, that part
of his brain that was simmering in hormones (he was a young man,
after all) immediately initiated a utility re-evaluation in hopes of
portioning more personal resources to spending time with this lovely
young woman. It failed, of course. These things were not simply
dreamed up on a whim. Plus, his assistant's presence was already
weighted quite highly relative to others'.
"Aren't they great?" she asked,
expressing an amount of pride Rex could only call 'brimming'.
"They'll do more complex behavior if I have the go-ahead to work on
them. Well, what do you say? Is this your solution?"
Rex liked her a hell of a lot, and knew
how sensitive she could be, but he cared not for his feelings for his
assistant when he tore into her work. "I notice they never directly
interact. They never touch each other, hand a block to another one.
And what would they do on board? Actuate controls? Odds are there's
an electronic interface. Sabotage? It takes precision to do anything
but destroy the Pluto. Remember, hundreds of megawatts, here. More
importantly, I have priors on these devices. You can't control them.
Several have gotten out of your work areas, one of which was in full
view of the schoolgoing public when I caught it. Keep working, but
you haven't shown me my solution yet."
He saw the resolve deliberately
gathering on her face. He could practically read her thoughts. They'd
be going something like: I knew it would be like this when I
became his... assistant. It's just how he is.
He wanted to comfort her, but anything not based on the merits of her
work was meaningless and transparent.
are, however, ahead of the Atomic Girl. Any radiation kills her
solution." She brightened.
we still on for Friday?"
double date with those two. I'll be there," he comforted her. At
this, she seemed adequately reassured. She went back to some small
component she was turning on a harmonic-lathe. "Hey, how do these
things process? What's their computer? I've been unable to determine
a good candidate just from my observation."
She blushed. "Trade
Rex's phone came to life one more time.
Dr. Polski had a communication for him. "When you see me next, I'll
show you your solution."
Rex saw Dr. Polski at dinner, and after
eating the delicious but unexpected steak and corn, sought him out in
"Doctor? You said you had my
The Doctor sat his thin form on a lab
stool for a moment. It was not obvious that he was doing anything. In
front of him was a diagram that incorporated conventions that Rex
hadn't seen before.
"Ah, Rex. I might need your help with
my strangelings soon. The Atomic Girl is useful for biological
analogs, but only so much, you see?"
"Yes. Ok. Will do."
There was an expectant pause. Rex spoke
again. "The solution to Pluto?"
Polski didn't register surprise. He
simply transitioned into his next task, showing Rex his work.
"I always wanted to trip digital
processing with particle beams. It was a fun idea of mine. But I
could never get the precision necessary to pinpoint one transistor on
a silicon wafer, let alone a unit of computronium. But the digital
controls on the Pluto... They have to be bathed in radiation,
correct? They must be very coarse, maybe vacuum tubes. Yes, if I were
making Pluto, I'd use vacuum tubes. Nothing else would stand up to
the intense ionizing radiation."
As he talked, he walked his scant frame
to an aerodynamic test model, one with small control surfaces on tiny
hydraulics. It was a model aircraft, on a stand that put it in the
middle of a wind tunnel. It had to be one of NASA Lass's. Rex couldn't
imagine any use Dr. Polski could have for it.
The doctor continued. "The fun of
vacuum tubes is that a large enough charge on the filament or a
conducing path through their rarefied atmosphere will cause them to
register whether or not they should. In the modern analogy, make a
one from a zero. It's rather fun to think about, really. You can
upset the programming of the device simply by tripping the correct
bits. If it's Turing-complete, you can even upload your own program
in this way. Hah! Uploading by particle beam!"
A switch-flip caused pressure to build
in the hydraulic control surfaces. The doctor then walked toward a
bank of glowing glass vacuum-tubes. The heat they were giving off was
astonishing. He typed a command on a keyboard with ivory studs, that
looked to be ripped from an early 20th-century typewriter. The doctor
had nothing if not style.
As the control surfaces began to
actuate, going through a calibration routine, Polski kept talking.
"The Pluto, though, is far more likely to be hard-coded. The best
we can do then is cause a false positive on a sensor, or false 'go'
command from the computer. It is enough."
Dr. Polski's thin arm now drew a
curtain from an apparatus with complex geometry and said jovially "Oh
no, Rex! Someone is messing with the Pluto's computer! But how?"
The apparatus sprang to life, and within its quickly swiveling
components Rex spied one of the doctor's particle beams, an electron
beam perhaps. It was pointed at the vacuum-tube guidance controller,
and where it rested its sights, the tubes flashed and glowed.
Suddenly the control surfaces on the aerodynamic rig ceased their
methodical calibration and began to act strangely.
"Look Rex, we're being pulled to the
right by some unseen force!" said Dr. Polski as the left-hand
surfaces pushed out. "And now the left!" as his device tripped
the tubes that actuated the right-hand surfaces. "Oh, no! We're
going to dive into the ocean!" he exclaimed joyfully as the
surfaces at the back of the model craft configured themselves to
Then everything turned itself off. The
particle beam, the raygun-gothic-style computer, and the hydraulics,
all died. Rex's friend looked positively elated. He looked at Rex
with a wildness in his eyes, yet a hint of childlike enthusiasm,
also. The look said 'Well? Isn't it awesome?'
Rex knew he was justified in this. It
was rather impressive. His housemate had obviously put a lot of work
into this, developing a working model as applied to an aerodynamic
craft as opposed to a calculator or a pyramid of wood. More
importantly, however, it was a solution.
"Brilliant, Polski. This is
definitely the best I've seen yet." But. "But we don't know the
position or configuration of the flight computer, nor if it's even
constructed out of vacuum tubes. And in order to put it to use, we'd
need a stable platform capable of maintaining relative position to
the Pluto at Mach 3.0. Keep at it." Then his demeanor softened. "That
was cool. Can we do it again?"
The Doctor smiled and threw three
switches. They ran through the entire demonstration again. Then
again. Eventually the noise and the smell of ozone attracted the
others. It had been a while since they'd had something like this.
Rex made a deliberate decision a few
years ago to sleep. Between an ever-wakeful state of
chemically-induced consciousness and the periodic state of familiar
structure, he went with the latter. Why did he willingly forgo many
hours per day of useful time? It was twofold: Swap time and
neurochemistry. The ever-Rex would have to deliberately interrupt
processes in order to garbage collect, which was unpredictable on the
scale of a brain and would often reduce performance. The somno-Rex
did it automatically. Somno-Rex also had a much easier time with
Cortisol and other stress hormones. Ever-Rex would simply be stewing
in the stuff.
Rex had met people who had taken the
other route. One of his closest friends had abandoned sleep in favor
of maximizing waking time. He'd been a formidable mind, while he was
still able to think.
This is relevant because Rex was now
preparing to sleep. It had been a long day, and he'd assigned many
resource-hours to the solution to his Pluto problem. As he lay down
on his bed, trusting the house's security system to keep away the
clones and ninjas, he slowly uncoiled himself. Ah, yes. This was why
he slept. Utter relaxation.
he thought as the more complex parts of his mind uncoiled themselves
and shut off like the lights of an empty warehouse. Thor
Bowden is on the Pluto...
Rex was looking
into thick white mist. There was an ungodly howl coming from
somewhere nearby, but the suspension of water in air was dampening
the sound, making it impossible to trace its point of origin. The
Sun, too, was invisible, and Rex found himself wanting for polarized
sunglasses with which to orient himself. He took a few steps and
queried, in this order, a GPS satellite, the Earth's magnetic field,
his own array of locater beacons, and finally a set of three pulsars
he used for spatial navigation. All four came up negative.
The howling was
getting louder, and the mist was twisting into tortured parodies of
structured thoughts. Lights bent by the variable index of refraction
danced now here, now there, illuminating a different plane of the
wafting mist each time.
The howling was
unbearable. Rex threw his hands up to cover his ears, unable to block
out the demonic noise. It grew and grew, uncaring toward Rex, until
an awful shape burst from the fog. Long and terrible, with great,
staring lights and four crunching points of contact with the ground,
it leapt toward Rex, devouring the distance between them until it was
almost upon him. Rex felt the thing in a way his worldview didn't
allow, instantly grasping its evil uncaring and utter dispassion.
Rex woke up in a
cold sweat. He almost screamed aloud. But as he peered into the
never-quite-darkness of the City night, the horror of it began to
fade. It was just a dream, after all. They are necessary if one wants
to sleep. Soon only one last detail remained, the very last notable
thought before he awoke: 28X. It was a City Transit Authority bus.
The next day, his
phone received a text message from NASA Lass. It read: "Got your
brief. Can you get more intel? Suggest NSA satellite, or rent out
boats. You can also use the X-15 if you want. -NL"
She had a point.
His roommates were all suggesting plans that presupposed a much
higher degree of knowledge about the Pluto than they had. Proceeding
without more intelligence was counterproductive.
No dice on the NSA
satellites. They were all routed toward something that was happening
in Russia at the moment, and the data was being monitored in real
time. There was no way he could borrow one undetected.
Dr. Polski was
eating breakfast. It was a small breakfast. The doctor did not eat
very much. Rex, on the other hand, ate enormous amounts of food, even
more so than the Atomic Girl (which obviously implied that the energy
at her disposal did not come from the chemical energy of her food).
They sat at their table in silence, all three re-acclimating
themselves to the reality of waking life. They were not morning
Rex made the effort
to be productive in his early waking hours, unwilling to accept so
much wasted time. He was just coming up from the basement now,
munching on an apple with which he'd electrostatically interacted
from across an empty room. "Doctor, I think we've reached the edge
of what we can do here. Can I get you to visit the Pacific, somewhere
in the area of Micronesia? Rent a boat and take spectra from the
Pluto. Don radiation gear, and not just for Pluto. I hear Micronesia
hasn't completely recovered."
The doctor would
turn him down. It was obvious that the doctor would turn him down. He
was in the middle of his ever-so-important research, and had absorbed
too much radiation this year as it was. He'd also have to either buy
a ticket on a commercial flight or organize private transportation.
It didn't make sense for him to go.
The Atomic Girl, on
the other hand, could fly. Fast. She was immune to the deadliest
radiation. She also wasn't nearly so attached to her research as the
Doctor was. The problem was that she disliked Rex. The Doctor would
turn Rex down, and the Atomic Girl would volunteer.
Phase one complete:
"I am not willing to do this. I am at pivotal moments in my
research. Find someone else." Anyone else would have been shocked
at how little the doctor was apologetic. Not Rex.
Now they wait.
Rex was counting
off the seconds and the relative probability of success with each
passing tick of the clock. As the probability slowly sank to 50%,
then to 10%, he snuck a look at the Atomic Girl's face. She was
looking at him, beaming. Well, this didn't work. She was having the
time of her life.
spoke up, revealing his master-stroke. "Oh, well. I guess I'll go
do it. I mean, it's not like the Atomic Girl can go. Her EM spectrum
would completely blind the scanners to the tiny deviations of the
order that we need to detect." The Atomic Girl's face fell. Didn't
see that one coming, did you?
Rex thought, rather childishly. Two can play at this game.
can do it if you want". Gil Eggars had come in while Rex was
waiting. Obviously Rex dismissed it out of hand.
This was just as
good a scenario. Rex needed time on the X-15 in order to fly it when
they took out the Pluto, and from the City to Micronesia was well
within its augmented range.
It was a win-win,
really. He won twice.
Rex put the access
codes that the Lass had emailed him into the hangar at the airport.
NASA Lass had some fairly serious backing from the government, and
with the backing came certain privileges. One of these was her own
hanger space at the local airport. Rex would have been jealous, if he
didn't have his reasons to not work for the government (or allow them
to know he existed. Frickin' brits, why did they care about him when
his own government didn't?).
walked into the hangar that was unmonitored as per requirement of
NASA Lass. He was glad he'd rubbed off on her at least in that
manner. He looked around, and had just a bit of a nerdgasm.
Everything that was too big to fit in the basement-lab and couldn't
or hadn't been moved to the new lab beneath the University was in
here. While that excluded lots of cool stuff, like EVA/Jetpack
crossovers and extraordinarily weaponized suits, it included that
which could not be launched from an underground location, like the
X-15. Like an enormous Space Shuttle transportation jet. Like an
air-breathing/rocket testbed that eventually took the majority of the
components that the Lass was using at that moment to orbit. Rex
resisted the urge to touch everything, in that he didn't touch
One thing he did
touch was the precious and famed X-15. The fastest low-altitude
(relatively) rocketplane, its sleek body was designed to cleave the
hypersonic air like a knife. It was black for purposes of radiative
heat dissipation. Now that was cool. Its outer plates had expansion
joints for the non-trivial thermal deformation every part of it would
undergo. Its four nozzles at the rear were covered in a thin,
iridescent film of metal oxide from their repeated, ionizing
pummeling. It was a tiny aircraft, optimized for plumbing the depths
of the very edge of what was humanly possible in the 1950s. At the
time, there was nothing that could do what it could do. That made it
beautiful, as well as useful for a young man who wanted to avoid
costly international transit flights.
He'd run through
the simulations before. Pull throttle all the way out, ignite, push
throttle all the way in, undergo more acceleration than the peak of
the old Space Shuttle flights, and wiggle the control stick as
needed. It seemed easy enough. Newtonian and atmospheric models were
one thing that humanity as a whole did rather well, over all, and he
was confident the simulations wouldn't be too far from accurate.
The hangar doors
opened at electronic request. Fantastic. The Lass's little electric
tugbot wheeled the plane-Rex complex out to the center of the largest
private runway in the airport. He was queried by air traffic control
exactly once, and replied with the response emailed to him from the
edge of the solar system.
All systems go. He
pulled back on the throttle lever. Fuel mixture started flowing
through the engines. He flipped the igniter switch.
Fwoosh. That was
the noise it made. The feeling it made was not so easily describable.
Rex didn't even push the throttle lever forward. The X-15 was only
back-throttleable to 30% thrust. At 30% thrust, Rex was pinned to his
seat. He was, currently, outperforming every single commercial
aircraft in the air, anywhere on the globe. It came to him to
pull back on the control stick, as he was running out of runway at an
impossible rate. He leapt into the air as if the ground were more of
a suggestion than a rule.
He roared through
the sky in a way that'd seldom been done before, the forward surfaces
of the plane radiating in the visible spectrum from the exertion of
cutting his path through the air. At some point early on, he
remembered that, while this was ungodly amounts of fun, one direction
was better than the others for a certain goal. He had to get to the
Pacific Ocean. Turning West at survivable acceleration involved
slicing a circle in the air whose radius was measured in miles. He
pushed the throttle lever all the way in, to maximize
distance-efficiency. As the engine turned cubic meters of liquid into
cubic kilometers of gas, the plane got lighter. It was the simple
rocket equation: the acceleration Rex would feel increased
asymptotically with time. He pulled up.
By the time he ran
out of fuel, his aircraft had become a spacecraft. The zenith of his
globe-spanning arc was at the midpoint between the City and his
target airport in Micronesia, right on schedule. Rex was weightless.
He knew exactly why the M&Ms he'd brought along were drifting in
front of his face rather than sitting in their little bowl. The exact
same forces that were applied to the X-15 were applied to them. There
was no reason for them to fall. It didn't make it any less beautiful.
When his plane
started hitting wisps of atmosphere, the first indication was rapidly
forming streaks of light, appearing as lines over his wings and nose.
They were air molecules recombining after being ionized by the
passage of an enormous bulk of titanium (and, to a negligible degree,
Rex) moving at Mach 7. Soon he could steer with the aerodynamic
control surfaces again. From here on he was a glider.
It was early but
bright when he'd left his home in urban mainland USA. Now 5e3 seconds
later, he was struggling to see his landing strip through the dark.
When he touched down, he did so on skids. No wheels could have
survived that landing.
When he left, he
did so wearing a filter mask. He didn't want to inhale any of the
alpha-emitting particles that the Micronesian government didn't admit
existed. He tipped the local staff well. They'd take care of his
let me get this straight: Rex is on his way to Micronesia?"
is in Micronesia now. He took a modified X-15. NASA Lass had one for
some reason. Now help me flush out this little guy."
Rex's assistant was
on her hands and knees, having cornered a tiny, round metal man
underneath a piece of furniture that was acting as its fortress. Gil
Eggars knew he should have been helping.
there now? It can't have been more than 2 hours since I offered to
go! What is an X-15?" Gil asked, feeling guilty that he didn't
really want to partake in Rex's assistant's little hunt.
X-15 is a rocket plane. They were built in the 50s to test some
theories about the functional form of hypervelocity resistive force.
They were known for their poor safety record and their allure to
17-year-old Wikipedians who feel convinced that hardware that awesome
has to be useful for something."
Gil looked ill.
"How poor a safety record?"
This caused a pause
from the assistant. "In the original production run of three
planes, one of them crashed and one of them disintegrated in flight.
But Rex keeps telling me that he's reviewed NASA Lass's modifications
and has reduced the risk of failure to acceptable levels." She spat
this last sentence. "I keep telling myself that if anyone knows
what acceptable levels are, it's Rex."
termination of Rex's voyage to another dimension in an enormous
evacuated dodecahedron flashed across both of their minds. Gil knew
it hit her hardest. It'd had been no cakewalk for him, either, but
Rex's assistant was never going to be able to forget that sight for
as long as she lived.
a second, the 1950's? We're trusting Rex's life to a machine that was
designed and made a lifetime before Rex was even born?" He was
guessing on this last point. He had no idea how old Rex was.
didn't answer. Her face was turned from Gil. She was rooting around
under the Ikea-spawned ad-hoc machine-sanctuary. Rex obviously knew
what effect his risks had on his assistant. Gil wondered whether he
himself would deliberately put his own assistant through this were he
in the same position. Poor girl. No one deserved this.
Rex was on a boat,
bobbing on the Pacific Ocean. He looked at his watch. 70 seconds. He
double-checked his equipment. Everything was set. His watch ticked
down, rather a misnomer because it actually ticked up in seconds
since the UNIX epoch. When the time came, he braced himself.
Tens of kilometers
away, a small, floating instrument package he'd grey-taped to an
inflated two-liter (previously of cola) was irradiated beyond what
any human had ever survived, torn apart by a shockwave in the density
of the air, and finally incinerated by the exhaust of a several-ton
aircraft moving three times the speed of sound no more than 50 meters
Rex smiled. This
round had confirmed his suspicions. Only a few more kilo-seconds of
dropping these buoys and he'd be confident enough to report back to
"What does it look like"
Gil's question ran through his mind. It wouldn't take too much to add
a small CCD camera to the next package. Might even get within a few
hundred meters before it got knocked out by radiation.
Gil was concerned
about Rex, too. He'd been different since his... reanimation? Reboot?
Rex always called it his "restore from backup", but Gil thought
this didn't have the appropriate connotation of unforgivable eldritch
monstrosity. And just this morning Rex had deliberately taken a shot
at the Atomic Girl, with no purpose other than to insult her. If Rex
were a normal person, Gil would attribute this to some small revenge
for her treatment of him, but Rex was normally so far above that...
Now stop. Think, Gil.
Gil had tried to emulate Rex ever since they first met, and it became
apparent that there existed someone of Rex's character in real life.
While Gil was more disillusioned recently with Rex's behavior, that
didn't change the fact that he'd saved Gil's and a pudgy bearded
man's life from hooligans, saw a random man walking down the street,
identified him as an evil enemy agent, got information about an
impending attack on the City, and thwarted it, all within a span of
analytically, like Rex did. Was Rex really acting any differently? He
certainly related to Gil in a more distant manner, but was that
indicative of an overall change? In general, no. If anything, he'd
gotten closer to his friends since the reboot, striking up a
relationship with his assistant and forming connections with NASA
Lass and Dr. Polski as he hadn't before. Even this deal with the
Atomic Girl, getting on her nerves as she got on his, could be seen
as participating in their game.
In some sense, he
was relieved. Rex was fine. On the other hand, the totally fine Rex
was exceptional only in how poorly he treated Gil. That was... more
personally disturbing. Gil's head hurt. His journalist-mind was not
built for this variety of analysis. He went to the kitchen and
grabbed an ice-cold cola.
Ok, when had Rex's
opinion shifted? It was not when their housemate !N had left, though
this was clearly a traumatic time. It was when Rex had been... uh...
killed, then restored. Gil had tried to understand this process
before. On the face of it it seemed simple. Rex was exactly the same
as he was when he'd been scanned by Dr. Polski's backup machine. But
here's when problems crippled Gil's ability to think: He'd been Rex's
friend after a while. Now, when Rex was restored, he wasn't. What
happened to Gil's friend? Did he die? But Rex was here now, able to
talk, think, and emote with Gil.
He couldn't imagine
what it must have been like for Rex, if it was this confusing for
...or maybe... he
could? That was it! He'd try to think about this from Rex's
standpoint. There were three basic time periods about which he had to
make a judgment. 1) After the Summit, until the backup. The current
Rex remembered this time. 2) After the backup, until death. The
current Rex did not remember this time. This was when Gil and Rex
struck up a friendship. 3) After the backup-restoration. Rex did
remember this time.
So. To Rex, it had
been like he saved Gil, put him up in a house as a temporary measure,
then gone into a brain scan chair and woke up months later to, among
other things, Gil living in his house. It all made sense now. Too bad
it sucked. Gil was deeply, existentially disturbed that such a thing
He was glad of the
comfort of the ice cold cola in his hand. He took a drink, feeling
its cold, sweet, fizziness slide down his throat. He felt much worse
than he had five seconds ago. But at the same time, he felt better
for knowing. He could understand Rex now. He could deal with him. And
surely that was better than blindly wondering what was wrong.
and Gentlemen, I have valuable intel on the Pluto".
Rex had come home
during dinner. They all paused briefly to look at him, then went back
to eating. Rex found that he'd overlooked his own dinner, but could
still eat, as a less-than-day jaunt without sleeping or major
brightness variations did not produce jet-lag. Or was this
He sat down and
discovered that a place had been set for him. Just as he was about to
begin, food on fork, the Atomic Girl interrupted his meal.
what did you find out? How much radiation did you absorb? What
concentration of alpha-emitters was there? How did you get permission
to land a rocket plane in Micronesia? How did you leave a
multi-million-dollar aerospace asset of the US Government in
Micronesia while you did your experiments? Where did you find fuel
for the return trip?"
He didn't pause to
answer. Answering now would be her victory, anyway. He wanted to
enjoy his food.
It was a long
dinner. Everyone who wasn't the Atomic Girl was rapt in suspense,
eager to learn about the Pluto. They were all either looking at him
or deliberately trying not to. Rex took his time anyway. He wasn't
about to sacrifice the enjoyment he received from eating dinner for
their curiosity. Finally, though, he finished.
kids. Gather around the whiteboard." Rex said, after a long sigh of
contentment directed toward the Atomic Girl.
Rex made his own
way toward the wall-spanning board, stopping only to place a
miniature projector on the dining room table. Such projectors were
available publicly, so he was justified in using it in the house. "I
did several runs, each with a new instrument package. That's because
the package was destroyed, spectacularly, after each run. Let's see
what we've got here:
The craft is emitting no data over government or civilian band. It
was designed to give a confirmation upon RF query, so we know that
that's because of tampering. Someone deliberately shut off data
reception and transmission capabilities.
The craft has a heavily-shielded payload bay. We knew this must have
been the case because there are human passengers, but now we've got
precise dimensions of the radiation blind spot. We could definitely
fly up to it if we stay within the solid-angle seen here.
There are two passengers. We already knew that, but I got
thermographic confirmation. 'How the hell did you get thermographic
data when there's a nuclear reactor putting out almost a Gigawatt
right next to the target area, Rex?' you ask? Repeated trials. Also,
some clever canceling-algorithms. You couldn't have done it.
Vacuum tube layout. As seen here. Dr. Polski, you have this in your
While there was nothing over EM that you'd expect from an enormous
aerospace asset of the United States of America, there was something.
Every time it flew overhead, the instrument packages got a whiff of
Bluetooth. Apparently there's someone up there with a laptop.
Apparently this person doesn't know to turn off Bluetooth, though as
far as he knows he's in the middle of the Pacific without anyone
within miles, so it's not so stupid. Anyway, laptop specifics are in
your brief. It's not one we've cracked before, but it can't be too
hard. That is all."
Despite her earlier
lack of enthusiasm, the Atomic Girl was salivating over the data with
the rest of them. Rex's assistant was already plotting trajectories
for a delivery system, designed to get the little brass robots on
board. It skirted the radiation blind spot, keeping the absurdly
heavy shielding of the passenger compartment between it and the core.
I got something for you, too." Rex said, as he prepped the final
video. "Your question last time kept bugging me. Of course it
really doesn't matter what it looks like in flight when you have
thermographic and finite-element layouts, but it wasn't that hard to
attach a camera to one of the instrument packages, so here. I took
displayed his surprise. He obviously wasn't expecting special
treatment. Oh, well. Maybe Rex had been a little hard on him
As rapt as the
housemates were during the presentation of the data, they were
positively enthralled at the grainy images that were projected onto
the whiteboard. It was sunny, around local noon over the Pacific. The
few clouds were thin and high. The Sun wasn't in the frame, but its
presence was known from the brightening of the sky toward one side.
In the distance,
where the sky-blue sea met the sea-blue sky, a pixel faded from blue
to white. Then those around it, faster. Then those around those, even
faster. Soon there was a shape of the purest white the projector
could render, indicating an impossibly bright object. The rest of the
image darkened, bleached as the automatic contrast of the camera
tried to display detail on the bright spot.
The Pluto wasn't
coming right at the camera. It was going to miss by several miles.
Now it was resolvable into a forward shape, searing into the left of
the frame, and a blazing contrail. Soon its velocity was growing at
an enormous rate, and at once it seemed to reach an asymptote. Just
as detail was visible on the craft itself, all that was left in the
image was a pure white streak. The water below the sky predicted the
onset of the shockwave before it reached the instrument package,
chopping its tiny waves into foam. When at once the hypersonic blast
of air hit the package, there was a single frame of flying, then
blank. The camera had ceased to transmit.
Rex noticed Gil's
attention was on that last frame before the craft was gone. He was
looking at the aircraft in its greatest detail. Much of its structure
was visible: the enormous air scoop, consisting of roughly half of
the forward area, the payload bay in the midsection, and of course
the area of utterly bleached-white aft of the vessel, where the
engine would be displayed if the camera could make heads or tails of
the torrents of photons emitted from it. The entire thing was glowing
with the light of recombining air, split apart by the passage of this
ungainly metal missile.
do you think, Gil?"
think I feel guilty. It's so beautiful, but so deadly. Every aspect
of it is death incarnate, but I can't take my eyes off of it..."
Then he stopped. His eyes darted to Rex. He deliberately set his
face, as if he wanted to take back something he'd said.
Yes it is. Everything that makes it notable makes it deadly. That's
why it has to be stopped."
Rex rounded the
corner to his machine shop after a long day's lecture-enduring. "You
wanted to see me?" He asked his assistant.
She was remarkably
clean for being in a grease-and-shavings covered workshop. When Rex
himself had machining to do, he came out looking like he'd survived
an uprising of the cogs. She, somehow, looked untouched. Especially
that hair. How did she do it?
have you given any thought to the human element here? You've never
told us anything about the unwilling passenger we're rescuing. Do we
know anything about him?"
Rex took a moment
to compose himself. He set his face to hard-casual before answering.
"Well, yes. I haven't discussed it at the whiteboard because it's
not relevant, but we do know his identity. Name: Thor Bowden. Rank:
eyes went wide in a way not consistent with impressed at rank. Crap,
he must have taken too long to answer, or been unable to keep his
thoughts out of his voice. This was the tidbit of data he'd been told
by Roderick Lumsdaine, 002, that he hadn't told his roomies. He
didn't really want to, either. Agent Bowden was not to be discussed
lightly. He had to nip this in the bud.
His voice took on a
character that could only have been one of truth. At the same time,
he faced her in an utterly trustworthy manner. He exuded only
confidence and explanation. If he could supply enough explanatory
cues, she would be convinced that what he said answered her question.
Show time: "Agent Bowden is a competent individual who will be able
to keep up with our plans, even on the fly." Now hot-swap to
interested curiosity: "How far have you come on the metal-men
registered on her face, then an eager desire to show off. It had
worked. Rex felt awful inside. He hated doing this to people he
are coming along great! This one can work a joystick to control a
fighter jet in this MS Flight simulator! Check it out:"
With that she
directed his attention toward a tiny brass homunculus, ticking away
in its polished shell, grasping a plastic arcade game joystick. With
its feet firmly planted, she demonstrated its ability to control
pitch and roll, with the full range of motion of the stick.
the Pluto has manual controls, he'll be able to steer them wherever
we want!" She finished.
She'd said 'he'.
She was referring to the little creations as 'he'. Rex would have to
keep his eyes on her.
Keep working on it. See if you can find a way to impose all victory
conditions: 1: Pluto threat neutralized. 2: No salvage hardware
available. 3: No radiation in populated areas. 4: Hostage passenger
freed. 5: Perpetrator passenger in custody. We can get a total
victory here. Don't accept anything less."
With that he left.
Thor Bowden... Absolutely no hits. He didn't exist. That was saying
something. There was no part of MI6 that Rex couldn't break, or so he
thought. Keeping a real, living person from the clutching grasp of
the Internet simply wasn't possible these days. 001 was bound to be
an interesting character.
Rex sat down to
breakfast. Again. It had been four whole days since Agent Lumsdaine
told him about the Pluto, and they still hadn't formed a solution. He
was getting impatient. Luckily, today was a weekend.
He picked up the
campus newspaper. The headline ran "University Decision Science
Program in Danger!" sub "odd disclaimers about unknown memetic
hazards drive away prospective students". Silly people. Rex and his
friends had designed the memetic hazard system to prevent this sort
of thing. People should be smarter.
Atomic Girl flew down the stairs in costume, dulled her radiative
emission to open the front door, and shot through it, peeling the
paint from the heat of her passage. There must have been a big one
terrorizing downtown. She really shouldn't leave, in costume, body
blazing, from their front door.
was a good reason most of these things happened during the weekend.
More often than not, would-be dictators had a (usually unfulfilling)
day job. Mechasauri could be constructed in spare time, Rex knew.
Only the natural disasters and the well-funded groups attacked during
the workday. The world was rather civilized in that manner.
The news started
squawking about an enormous black shape with a wake of emptiness
stalking toward downtown. That must have been the Atomic Girl's guy.
He followed in an abstract manner as he began to piece together a
sequence and resource partition that combined what plans and hardware
he had at his disposal.
Polski's idea had to go first. Not only was it the plan with the
highest probability of success, it didn't reduce subsequent plans'
probabilities of success. If that didn't work, they'd try to hack the
laptop, hoping it was being used for guidance. Next-least-destructive
would have been the Atomic Girl's, if her little bio-nanites had ever
survived the required radiation level. Instead, next had to be his
assistant's metal men. If any of these succeeded, they'd pilot the
Pluto into an island they'd rented (and had a good natural excuse for
the irradiation thereof), dig a pit, fill it with lead-salt concrete,
land it on its tail (they'd done this in simulation, with as little
as 98% accuracy on controls!), extract the passengers (quickly, as
the longer they were near the Pluto the more radiation they'd receive
from bounceback from the concrete), and let it sink.
He liked all three of
these outcomes. There were copious failure modes, such as slowing
down the Pluto enough that a drop into the Pacific would be
non-fatal, but this was the plot that had the highest renormalized
probability of success.
Rex really liked the unstated
next-best option, though he wasn't insane enough to tell anyone,
least of all his assistant. With any luck, they would never know and
he'd never have to demonstrate his enthusiasm for it.
He got a call from
the Atomic Girl. "Hey, Rex. I know you're not doing anything
because you have no life. What are the dimensions of k-sub-e? I don't
Rex sighed. "I'll
be there in 100 seconds. Let me get the dirt bike started."
The Atomic Girl had
taken the time to quench to call him. She'd willingly dulled her
flame enough to be able to hold her phone without melting it. His
help must really be required for this one. Oh, well. Off to work.
Let us skip ahead
two more days. Rex and his friends skipped classes, borrowed an
enormous jet, strapped the X-15 to the bottom, called ahead to make
sure no workers were still at the island they'd rented, and took off.
It would take twelve hours to get there. Rex missed his little rocket
He was bored. He'd
downloaded the entirety of Wikipedia earlier that morning, and was
assimilating it. But that didn't use up all of his processing
resources, not even close. In the fuselage of their jet, Dr. Polski
and the Atomic Girl were playing cards. They were also smiling and
being generally friendly in a manner that deliberately drew contrast
between interaction between herself and Rex. Gil was piloting, to his
exhilaration and apprehension. Even after Rex told him all of the
safety features in place and that everyone would be monitoring the
state of the aircraft during flight, he was still nervous. It seemed
Gil had not only never flown an enormous jet, which seemed
incomprehensible to Rex, he'd never flown a fixed-wing aircraft. How
did someone live to... however old Gil was... without flying a
That left Rex's
assistant to pass the time. After he realized this, it ceased being
boring for him. Twelve hours passed rather quickly.
Geiger counter jumped in Counts Per Minute. "I guess we're there,
you guys!" Gil called back to the rest of the group. They were
cruising at what the altimeter read as '5000' feet, which Rex knew
from experience was something like 1.2e3 meters. At this distance,
the waves appeared stationary below them as they drifted over the
Pacific. What few features were visible crawled at a leisurely pace
below, a point of white brilliance streaked across the landscape,
horizon to horizon, in under a second. It was impossibly fast. Rex's
brain originally interpreted the little point and its ensuing
contrail as a dust speck on his eye; nothing could move that fast in
this tranquil place above the world. Even the fastest cars, trains,
boats, and other airplanes traversed their sensoria in minutes rather
than fractional seconds at this height. But here it was, this nuclear
powered aircraft, 'every aspect of which was death incarnate,' (Gil
was growing on him, he realized) rending the world below them like
the point of a knife through reality itself.
After its passage,
the ocean exploded upward in a neat line. From their height, the
simple discoloration from sea-blue to foam-white suggested the
megawatts being expended. The shockwave from this white-hot avatar of
fury (Gil's term again) whipped the water into a perfectly linear
tempest, churning and finally falling still.
did you plan our course to do that?" Asked Gil. Rex nodded,
smiling. Now Gil knew what it looked like.
They descended. Rex
opened the hatch to the X-15.
his assistant shouted over the rushing wind. "You're going? Just
like that?" She looked as she did whenever something reminded her
of giant evacuated dodecahedra.
He looked up,
puzzled. Then he remembered. "Oh, right. I promise I will do my
very best not to die. If I do, I've prepared a statement for my next
backup." Gil vomited.
Rex hugged his
assistant, strode to the hatch in the floor, and swung himself into
the X-15's seat. "Ok, drop me" he announced to the radio. The
clamps gave away with a clank, and he was gliding. He pointed the
nose toward the direction of the Pluto's passage, and in the one
piece of aviation hardware that could outperform a
several-hundred-megawatt nuclear reactor on wings, pressed the
was the solution to catching up to a gigantic machine that sucked in
dense, sea-level air, and thrust itself through it at three times the
speed of sound? Well, the simple
solution was another gigantic machine that... But the elegant
solution was to use a machine that simply cut through the air. The
X-15 was not designed to slip through the soupy atmosphere at sea
level, but at least it was designed to slip through air without
disturbing it. The Pluto needed to interact with the air, its
solution was to muscle it out of the way.
Expending a tiny
fraction of the energy that the Pluto was, Rex punched it. The world
rushed around him. The panels of his aircraft, not designed for the
aerodynamic pressure so low in the atmosphere, heated to an angry red
blur far before Mach 3.0. Rex was enthralled.
Soon the radiation
levels outside became a significant portion of a lethal dose. This
was the radioactive ejecta from the Pluto. As soon as he could pull
level with it, the radiation would drop off. The danger then would be
the ionizing ration from the core itself. He had to get into the
radiation blind spot he'd detected when he was here a week ago.
up. 20 seconds."
polarized and darkened as the missile came into view. It was the
single point of light in the otherwise dark landscape by the time he
could resolve detail. By this time the air it heaved out of its path
at unheard-of speed was buffeting him. It could easily tear the X-15
apart in places. He had to avoid these points as determined by
After expending the
allotted amount of fuel, in short supply as with every rocket, he
drew abreast. Radar and Lidar came on, and he tracked his relative
position. Dead-on. He was positioned such that the heavily shielded
payload bay was between himself and the core. He could stay like this
for as long as his fuel held out. He looked over, at the missile.
...Pluto. Oh me oh
my Pluto. As cubic kilometers of air streamed between them and any
number of extraordinarily lethal forces played with his dear, fragile
form, Pluto. Against a dark world, coursing with ungodly power as it
had for months, Pluto. He could see the familiar shape from his
models, fore air scoop, mid payload bay, aft engine... Oh the
engine... Where it touched the outside world were streaked lines of
elemental destruction, cleaving the very composition of the air to
produce that clear, white light. It was death incarnate, it was a
white-hot avatar of fury, it was a nightmare missile, yes Gil, but it
was beautiful beyond measure, enchanting beyond comprehension, Pluto!
It was a shame he
was going to destroy it.
position. Particle beam locked on. Calibration: preparing -0.1 radian
azimuthal change." Rex cued Dr. Polski's equipment package from its
clear pod on the bottom of his plane. A pencil of charged particles
lanced from it to a specific portion of the missile, intersecting
with electronics that controlled the aerodynamic control surfaces.
The X-15, his sweet ride, bucked and shook as the air streaming off
of the Pluto shifted in accordance with its false commands. But it
wasn't -0.1 radians. In fact, it seemed like the Pluto was rolling.
That was not good. "Polski, we got roll. Shutting off." The Pluto
can't tell you anything you don't know, Rex. Try from another
position. Maybe you're intersecting two tubes."
Rex pulled ahead by no more than ten meters, a feat requiring
concentration and finesse above and beyond what people should be able
to do. "Particle beam locked on. Calibration: Preparing azimuthal
change." Rex's commands fell on receptive ears, and once again the
radiation coursed from his aircraft to the behemoth next to him.
Again, the enormous metal form rolled. "Roll again, Doctor. You've
passed allotted time. Aborting particle beam. Moving to laptop hack."
Rex kept a careful
eye on his fuel. He was running out. The rocket plane was not
designed for this. It was fundamentally a transient beast, a few
minutes of thrust followed by coasting. Pumps slurped at the precious
reactive liquids in his tank, each second denying him future options.
Their standard automated hacking program was designed for minutes of
uptime, not seconds. Even with their improvements, he was nearing the
end of his usable time when it returned positive results. "I'm in
the laptop... and..." Rex allowed his automated search program to
determine the extent to which the laptop was interfaced with the
lesser person would have shouted in frustration. Rex was too busy
holding his tiny needle of a craft close to a whale of metal
screaming its way through the air. "The laptop is not tied into
navigation. Aborting. It's the metal men now." The failure of the
first two options was not unforeseen. He still had options.
launch distance." He said as he inched his rocket closer to the
ramjet, more and more shaken and jarred by its wake, until the Radar
reported the positive. "Firing."
He looked out of
his cockpit. The payload of seven polished brass contrivances for the
boarding and commandeering of the Pluto shot into the space between
them and traversed the layers of supersonic, ionized,
super-compressed air to impact squarely onto the hull of the Pluto.
As he watched, three of them fell away in the blasting wind,
eventually impacting with the ocean.
The other four cut
their way into the skin of the vessel with disposable chemical
torches. Rex resisted the urge to whisper 'come on, come one' under
his breath. He instead focused on his fuel gauge. Well, this sucked.
He couldn't hold for more than thirty seconds at most.
Back on the
enormous jet, his assistant was monitoring their success. "Rex, I
lost contact with three. Did they make it on?"
a no, dear. Three fell off. How fast can you do it? I'm at 20 seconds
ok, I have three at the control stick and one at the hydraulic line
for failsafe. Er, two at the control stick. Er, never mind." Then
silence. "Rex, they're being discovered! Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't
account for defenses against them! I'm so..."
Rex had five
seconds. He could not be tactful. He loved her dearly but... "Shut
up. Now. Do you still have one at the hydraulic line?" He didn't
wait for an answer. "Have it actuate the emergency control rod."
Plan B was in effect. He turned off the radio for fear of
transmitting involuntary maniacal laughter.
His assistant went
silent. She could understand, he was sure. The Atomic Girl came on.
"Done, you insensitive prick..."
The Pluto bucked in
air. Relentlessly fast, it dropped back. Someone must have been at
the controls, because at this moment it pulled up, trading its absurd
forward velocity for altitude. A full two seconds of fuel left, and
Rex hadn't needed it. His small craft easily kept up with the
struggling behemoth. Soon the Pluto reached the top of its desperate
climb, and its bid for extra time was about to expire.
The Pluto and X-15
hung in the relatively still air at the top of the climb. Without the
ungodly thrust that the nuclear reactor put out, the Pluto was going
to start falling, fast. But for the moment, they both hung in air
with scant meters per seconds of airspeed.
Plan B." Rex hoped no one had read that far in the brief.
what are you doing?"
X-15 on autopilot."
the X-15 had an autopilot all along?"
YOU ANSWER ME RIGHT NOW!"
it's still plenty windy out here. You'd think we'd shed a lot of
velocity climbing this high."
for the love of God, don't do this."
someone had read the brief. "Why, AG? You fly without a plane every
Rex jumped. A line
of para-cord attached itself to the hull of the Pluto from his belt.
The X-15 dropped away, its predesignated program executing to land on
the nearest island. He was alone in blue sky, a mote in the face of
the heavens, reeling himself toward an absurd, crippled missile.
He impacted the
surface of the Pluto, wind ripping through his hair. He could barely
move against it, yet he still had the image in his mind of this very
vessel propelling itself orders of magnitude faster. Suspended
against the side of the craft, he felt like he was on his own, tiny,
cylindrical planet hanging in the sky. For some reason the vast,
visible blue emptiness of the daytime sky hit him harder than any
jaunt in starry black space had. This was what the ancestral brain
understood to mean 'vast'. He inched closer and closer to the hole
made by his assistant's metal men... and dropped in.
It smelled in here.
It was dark. The air was stale and rank, as if two people had been
living here for months on end. It was also small, the volume
necessary to accommodate only 70 or so city-leveling hydrogen bombs.
When his hand came away from the wall, it took dark grit with it.
little bubble of squalor began to accelerate. Frick, the enemy had
found the last metal man and pulled it. If he was going to go out the
way he'd come in, he'd need to move fast.
There were two
options for the relatively narrow payload bay: fore or aft. Guessing
that any control interface would be fore, and any habitation would be
far from the reactor at aft, he began to move toward the front of the
He witnessed much
over the course of the next few seconds, the mountains of empty food
cans, the human waste bags piled high over some corner, the primitive
washing station for when even those who would steal a nuclear
aircraft became overwhelmed by their own stink... but the most
notable was undoubtedly stumbling across an unmoving form, tied to a
He looked to be
unconscious, his head lolling over his lap. Rex moved quickly beside
him and without hesitating cut the ropes that kept the prisoner. At
this point it became apparent that the man who could only have been
MI6 agent 001, Agent Bowden, was conscious. He raised his head and
for some more, are you?"
Rex looked down at
a face utterly devoid of characteristic features. Agent Bowden was
bland. Blander than a single face in the crowd. His build was pudgy.
His voice, utterly normal with a hint of jovial. Rex had a hard time
remembering it once it slumped back down to its lap. Even when
looking right upon it, he had to concentrate on a characteristic to
be able to describe it as anything other than 'average'.
Bowden, I am not your captor. I am here to rescue you. Can you walk?"
Thor Bowden never
gave a clue of anything other than acknowledgement. If he was
surprised, Rex had no idea. If he was unbelieving, Rex couldn't tell.
This man was like the ultimate non-entity. A mote in a tide of
humanity even when there was no other humanity around.
The British agent
stumbled to his feet, swaying even when the deck wasn't lurching
beneath him. "I can walk." he said, possibly in an accent, in a
tone impossible to describe. It simply melted into the background of
Rex's data processing.
Rex and his new
companion stumbled back to the roaring hole in the side of the
aircraft. Howling wind issued from it like a wound in the side of
some vast animal. Rex slapped a spare parachute onto his charge's
back and said "Won't be a moment" before shoving the form out.
Agent Bowden didn't struggle, didn't flail. It was as if he'd done
Rex, on the other
hand, ran back toward where some pipes had looked particularly
jury-rigged in the payload bay. By his estimation, any pipe that big
at this point in the structure could only be the main hydraulic fluid
line. As if to answer, he stumbled upon the remains of a little round
brass form with arms and legs, still clutching to a valve. It looked
as if it had been shot several times. Obviously the passenger still
at large on the Pluto had not been enthused at the prospect of tiny
Rex took the
cutting torch that his assistant's ticking creation had used to gain
access to the vessel. He ignited it and burned the biggest hole in
the hydraulic line he could. Fluid began to spray into the cavity in
the payload bay with astonishing force. It dented the wall where it
Rex, on the other
hand, was long gone. Just as the emergency control rods were forced
into the atomic pile, he was jumping into the vast blue sky one more
time today, this time to land only on the ocean. As he fell, he was
brought to local-stationary relatively quickly, the air tugging at
him and slowing his horizontal motion. The Pluto, on the other hand,
was orders of magnitude more massive. He got one last, good look at
the nightmare missile shooting over his head before he had to turn
his thoughts to more pressing matters.
He caught up to
Agent Bowden in mid air. The brit hadn't yet popped his chute. Rex
fell with him for a little while, until the other mimed the motion of
pulling the rip-cord. Rex nodded. Two parachutes inflated in quick
succession, and when they hit the ocean seconds later, it was at a
is Rex Riptide calling whoever is on the radio. The Pluto is going
down in some anonymous patch of ocean. Track it. Then come back for
Thor Bowden and myself. The other passenger did not leave." That
was all they needed to know for the success of the mission. For his
comfort, however, "And step on it. We're rather wet down here."
Rex now had the
time to study his companion in more detail. Even with what should
have been gouts of adrenaline coursing through his veins from the
fall, and his wet hair sticking to his face, the MI6 agent was
nondescript. He made one want to turn away and go back to whatever
they were doing out of boredom. Unfortunately, Rex did not have
anything else to do right at that moment.
My name is Rex. Do you know any good ways to pass the time?"
Bowden, myself. I've been in enough boring situations that I know how
to amuse myself. And might I say that was quite a remarkable feat you
The next day was a
Tuesday. Their British guest had stayed for dinner, politely thanked
them, and gotten a ride from an utterly uninteresting car.
Rex was just
sitting down to read the rest of his campus newspaper, one of the
only papers that was not available online, when a knock came from the
door. He opened the door to Agent Roderick Lumsdaine, MI6 002,
standing outside in a suit.
Rex. I know you stopped the Pluto for your own reasons, but we'd
still like to thank you. On behalf of Her Majesty's Secret Service,
here." He tossed an object toward Rex. The security system of Rex's
house RF-queried it, pointed a Geiger counter its way, and finally
Lidar-mapped it to determine that it was a key ring containing the
key to an automobile and a scuffed-up rubber fob.
caught it. "Thanks. What's this to?" Rex asked, hoping against
hope that a shiny new convertible would not pull up in a minute. In
response, the agent simply sidestepped.
There, in the road
outside, was a 1994 Suzuki DR350SE, a dual sport motorcycle with
350cc of engine displacement, able to cruse at speeds of up to 75MPH,
with gas mileage approaching 70MPG. Rex gaped.
That's... I... thank you sir! That's great!" he charged down the
steps to examine his new toy. "Oh, it's even got the exact optimal
amount of corrosion on the lines, and scuffs and scrapes consistent
with light but regular use by a college-age individual! I could have
spent hours doing this! It's a masterpiece!" He looked up at Agent
Lumsdaine. He tried to stifle a maniacal laugh. Really, he did. But
as inevitable as thermal equilibrium, one rang clearly and freely
from his chest, "Muahahahaha!"
He ran inside again
to get his helmet. On the way he passed NASA Lass, who had touched
down not two hours ago. "Hey, guess what I got from the British
government?" he said.
it a new set of exterior plates for a 1950's vintage X-15?" She
said as she eyed him murderously.
He ran past his
assistant. "I got a new dirt bike from the brits!" he said
still not talking to you." she replied without looking at him.
He ran past the
Atomic Girl without saying anything. As he got farther away, he heard
her say with glee, "Oh, Rex. It'll take you weeks to fix this."
She chuckled just a bit.
Rex retrieved his
helmet. Whatever. He was going to try out his new toy.
Gil was helping Dr. Polski with an experiment nearby.
"Does that sit well with you, Doctor?"
The doctor looked no more pensive than usual, and replied, "Yes. It is entirely
fitting with my worldview that you can be as much of an ass as you want,
but if you save the world, you get a free motorcycle."