"Retroactive" by Wilhelm Steiner

(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
 

The Equalizer
by Forrest Aguirre

 

The room was filled with white lab coats and military fatigues. These uniforms were, in turn, filled with a gathering of scientists and military men on the third floor of an apartment building near a busy beach. A test was imminent, but there were no blast shields, no detection equipment, only a room full of smug scientists and bewildered generals and admirals, each with a pair of binoculars. Heavily armed military policemen kept watch at the doorways.

General Matthewson, a four-star Air Force presidential-cabinet member, furrowed his brow. "Where will the blast be centered? And why are there no blast shields here?"

"No need," Doctor Brown explained, smiling. "Blast shields would only block your view of events. As for the blast site, you are standing on ground zero".

"What?!" the military contingent bellowed in crisp unison. One general barked, "Details of this project have been sorely lacking, doctor! WE all have classified clearance. There's no reason that we should not have been more informed about this project! This is worse than a congressional committee!" A babble of complaints arose from the military contingent, while the smattering of scientists cast nervous glances at each other.

Doctor Brown's assistant, a young female intern, whose post-doctoral work rested heavily on this experiment, stepped forward and gestured for calm: "Gentlemen, please. I am Marilyn Lambert, research assistant on this project. No need to fear. The bomb will not affect us, though there is a slight risk of accidental exposure to..." she searched for the words "...birds. Or aircraft. Though we have..."

"Aircraft doing what?" an army major demanded.

"You will see, major," she said, a hint of coyness in her voice. "Don't worry."

A voice on General Matthewson's radio crackled: "The payload has been delivered. Detonation in 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4..." The major's eyes widened with the descending count.

A soft "WHUMP," barely audible, engulfed the city. Most of the residents on the streets beneath did not notice. A few turned their ears skyward. No fireball erupted, no mist of airborne neurotoxins rained down, no shrapnel ricocheted off the city streets. Just a soft sound like a pillow being fluffed up, a bed being made. The military men looked at each other, faces contorted in disgust at the anticlimax.

"What the hell was that?" Rear Admiral Harriford asked, sounding almost insulted by the lack of pyrotechnics.

The intern smiled. "Wait".

Then the screaming began. Brakes screeched and car horns exploded into a cacophony of fear and warning. The crash of smashing metal and shattering glass blossomed from every corner. A strange drumming echoed in the air around the apartment's windows. The sun seemed to fade into darkness.

The officers rushed to the windows to see what had happened, but their view was hampered by a flurry of feathers and wings -- a cloud of birds occluding the sun. Beyond the avian wall, chaos flooded the area. A helicopter crashed into a nearby building, setting it aflame with fuel, the bay churned with fish, sharks, whales. And the birds, the birds were everywhere, choking doorways, bouncing from windows, pecking at anything they could reach with their beaks. Fights had erupted in the streets as tormented pedestrians tried in vain to flee the streets. The MPs on the first floor had their hands full holding the doors shut against the tide of frightened citizens.

"This is brilliant!" the army major said. "How do you do it? Whatever 'it' is?"

Doctor Brown spoke first. "We call it a gravity-compression field. Basically, we have confined all living beings within the blast radius, allowing them to travel no higher or lower than twenty meters above or below the surface of the earth or sea..."

The intern continued her explanation: "The effect will wear off in about half an hour. After the compression term, all will return to normal." A large explosion several blocks away cracked the windows. "That would be flight 2105 to Denver. Leaving on schedule, I see."

The officers laughed, then shook hands with Doctor Brown and his intern. "Fantastic," "cunning," and "worthy of our attention" filled the air.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Dr. Brown said. And no need to worry, we have prepared a detailed map and schedule for every plane flight to and from the area. We will remain here until the blast effect has dissipated. For now we are safe here." He hesitated. "Though I must admit my regret for what you call 'collateral damage'. Necessary, but regrettable." The intern pursed her lips and turned away.

The military men paused briefly, then burst out in laughter. "Good one," Admiral Harriford said with a wink.

The MPs waited for the gravity storm to abate, then escorted the brass-lapeled entourage to the local air base, which was well outside of the blast radius. When the half-hour had elapsed they flew home -- well above twenty meters.


* * *

Several months later, General Matthewson received a letter from Doctor Brown and his erstwhile intern, now Doctor Lambert, who had been awarded the title of Assistant Ordinance Researcher, Los Alamos National Weapons Facility:

Dear General Matthewson:

We are pleased to know that the gravity confinement bomb has found such widespread acceptance. We are proud of the efforts of so many wonderful scientists who have furthered the project and made the production of these devices cost-effective. We understand that Congress has approved the purchase of five hundred such devices over a three-year period. Thank you for exerting your influence.

Science marches on. We have now developed a new weapon which we are confident will assist you in your efforts at national security and defense. This device is related to the gravity-compression bomb, and the details are myriad, but the basic premise is as follows: All computer-based or otherwise electronic information of a financial nature within the twenty-meter blast radius (again, there is no detectable explosion and those within the area of effect are otherwise unaffected) is almost instantly detected and stored within this new device, a small microchip with an attached transceiver that can fit in the palm of one's hand. This information is then processed, and every asset in the area of effect -- banking account balances, stock holdings, dept-repayment schedules, etc. -- is divided equally among all residents in the area of the blast.

While we realize the ideological difficulties implied by the development of this new technology, we feel that you would be capable of finding an appropriate use for such a device. Please inform us of your interests.

Sincerely,

Drs. Brown and Lambert,
Los Alamos

The next day both researchers were arrested and jailed on charges of treason. Doctors Brown and Lambert were assassinated by a crazed gunman on their way to sentencing the week following their arrest. Authorities have been unable to apprehend the attacker.




Story © 2002 by Forrest Aguirre chromatic30@hotmail.com

Illustration © 2002 by Wilhelm Steiner misery@subnet.at




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