100. Dead Man’s Switch

“Pretty nifty, huh?” said Quentin. “I guess this makes a me a mad scientist now.”

He, Alexander, and Sibyl stood around a contraption Quentin had been assembling. The final parts had come in, and crew men worked to fasten the results into place. Sparks flew as welding torches meshed lines of gooey metal together. The work noises echoed through the bowels of the Manakin engine floor.

For Alexander, this was like a trip to a foreign country. All he’d ever seen of the Manakin was its chrome spires. After years inside a dull terrarium, he felt like he was living in a fantasy novel, ruling from his cloud city. Down in the cramped bowels of the ship, the air stank of sweat and oil. Everyone was in constant turmoil. It was as though he’d traveled to the Dwarven underground.

The device itself was disappointingly plain. He’d hoped for something menacing, but what Quentin brought him looked like a repurposed septic tank.

“Was there any way you could have made this smaller?” asked Alexander.

“Yeah, sure,” Quentin replied. “Give me a larger team and a few months, and I could have given you a doomsday device that fits in your pocket.” He spoke in a whisper. The ship engineers didn’t know what this mystery box was for, not that it would matter if they did. Like everyone else here, those men would probably offer to sit on the bomb and pull the trigger if they thought it would make Alex happy.

“Fact is, though,” Quentin said, “you gave me a couple days. So be happy with what you got: a three stage nuclear bomb mostly cliffed from Russian designs plus my own personal touches. The first two stages are the same, but I tweaked the fusion in the third stage for some extra fun times.”

“The antimatter?”

“Ah… I decided against the antimatter route. Too many problems, but don’t worry. This’ll be big enough for you.

“What’s it’s yield?”

“It’s not tested, but somewhere between two hundred and fifty to five hundred megatons.”

“And what’s that?”

“Take all the bombs launched during the Collapse and multiply them by… five? Or how about five thousand Hiroshimas? The global cooling effect would be worse than what the Collapse caused, but probably not five times worse since this would all go off in one place. Plus, there are a ton of other factors, but you’re still looking at some serious Mutually Assured Destruction.”

Alex nodded.

The engineers finished mounting the device. One man fumbled with a nest of wires trailing from one end.

“Oh, that’s cool, man,” Quentin said. “I’ll take care of that. Thanks, guys.” He ushered them out. Returning, he untangled cables and plugged several together. Others he attached to wall outlets.

“Um, correct me if I’m wrong,” Alex said, “but this bomb can’t be disarmed simply by unplugging it, right?”

“Nah, most of this is grounding.” He pointed out cables. “This, and this are for the monitoring the water chambers and stuff. The actual bomb part runs on its own Stiller Generator. Trust me. This is a bitch to disarm.” He shrugged. “…once it’s armed.”

“How resistant is it?”

He fished a wrist band from his pocket and handed it to Alex. Where a watch face would be was instead a miniature display. “Dead man’s switch, like we talked about. Set a time on it, like a day or two. Then you arm the bomb, and that’s it. It’ll give you warnings at an hour, ten minutes, and one minute. If you don’t reset the timer, the bomb goes off.”

“I see.” Alex explored the wrist band’s menu. “And it can’t be disarmed from this watch. Right?”

“Right. You can only reset the timer. To disarm it once it’s live, you need to disarm it here.”

“How hard is that to do?”

“It’s tricky, but I made a README file explaining how.” Quentin tapped a tablet mounted to the bomb.

“You’re joking, right?”

“No. What if something happened to me? Somebody’d have to stop it.”

Alex smiled thinly. “Perhaps you’re missing the point of this. I’m dealing with an opponent who can steal our bodies and read minds, someone who is probably watching us right now. If any of us can disarm it, so can she.”

“Don’t worry. It takes some power tools and a few hours to pull this apart.”

“Hours?” asked Alex. “More than, say… two?”

“Yeah, about that.”

Alex fiddled with the wrist band. “Two. Zero. Zero… There.” He held it up. “That’s two hours, right? Not two minutes?”

“…Uh…That’s right.”

“Great!” Alex hit a prominent red button on the wrist display. An industrial beep sounded from the massive bomb before them. It began humming. The wrist dial now showed 1:59 with small numbers in the corner counting seconds.

Quentin chuckled. “Maybe uh… maybe I didn’t explain this correctly. That countdown is not a timer to arming the bomb. It’s to detonation. You just armed the bomb.”

“Right, but this is a dead man’s switch, right? I just press this…” Alex pressed an onscreen button showing a circular arrow. The timer jumped back to two hours. “And it resets. Right. This is perfect.”

“I was thinking you’d choose a few days or maybe weeks. You have to push that button every two hours. Every. Two. Hours. Day and night. Do you plan on waking up that much?”

“Ooh, you’re right.” Alex turned to Sibyl. “How about you take over night shifts. You think you can do that?”

“Okay,” she said automatically.

“Hmm.” Alex pondered. “That’s not secure though. You’re a dumb dumb. I guess we’ll have to move you into that room off my bedroom. That way everyone has to go by me to get to you.”

“Okay.”

Alex pondered. “Maybe I should get some guys to install a lock on the door, and I’ll have the only key.” He shrugged. “Can’t be too safe. For all we know. Victoria could coax you into leaving somehow. I hope you don’t mind being locked in.”

Sibyl nodded. Her mind was so damn saturated with him, he wondered what else she would agree to. If he told her she shouldn’t risk going to sleep, he was sure she’d do it, but what if he had her chained to the wall, just in case? He probably wouldn’t even have to explain why.

“Okay…” Quentin chuckled again. He was a man laughing at a joke he didn’t get. “Alex… there is riding a lot on that watch. I’m not sure you’re quite getting this. The reset procedure is an encrypted challenge/response using a private key that’s only in that watch. If it breaks, if you lose it, if you lose reception, or anything, then there’s nothing any of us can do. I couldn’t disarm this bomb fast enough.”

“I don’t think I’ll be going far,” said Alex. “And this watch is robust, right?” Alex rapped it against the bomb.

Quentin lunged for it, caught himself, and bit his knuckles. “Don’t joke about that. I’m serious. If something happens to that watch…”

“Oh, relax. This is just until I’m good and sure Victoria is toast. It’s not like I actually want the bomb to go off, right?” Alex laughed in a way that invited Quentin to join him.

Quentin tried. “Yeah. Yeah. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

Alexander peered curiously at the wrist band. “I started this countdown, which I have to reset every two hours. If I don’t. The world gets another ice age, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like I know exactly what I’m doing. What you meant to say was: I hope this a good idea.”

“Is it?”

“We’ll find out.”

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