Sci-fi Shorts: Thirteen

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Despite John's remonstrations, the bank of computer displays kept stolidly to its text: "13 minutes remaining."

By all accounts, John had a simple enough job in the organisation: monitor the computers, as they went about their task. He had been told by the previous holder of the post that the software had an "issue" with a certain process; it tended to get "stuck", as he put it, near the end. He'd referred to it as the "13-minute gap", because the software always stuck when it displayed that figure as the remaining time to completion.

This was John's second day, and already he'd seen the software stick twice: once on the process last night, and again right now. Both times, it had taken a good span of time before the computers were moving again, and it seemed that John could do nothing to speed it up. He was a little worried that his job seemed redundant; the setup never went wrong, since it was able to cut out any computer units that went bad for whatever reason, and compensate for it.

At a wild guess, it was this compensation that the system had been doing for the last half hour, since the displays still stubbornly read "13 minutes". John decided it was time to leave the system be, and do some homework. He was enrolled on a part-time course with the local university, and this job had already given him ample time for study, even in his short time in the post. He settled down with his dense book on legal theory, and set to.

John woke up, probably a few hours later, to find the computer room much quieter. Obviously, in the intervening period taken by his nap, the task allocated to the system had been completed. One of the computers had a few sheafs of paper freshly printed in its out-tray, and he guessed he'd have to pick those up and take them to the manager. It could wait a few more hours though, John thought, and he did need more sleep.

Abdul studied the report produced by the overnights in more detail. The first time he'd read it, the result had looked a bit surprising. It seemed that the task had finally hit the right nail with the right hammer.

It had been Moassim's idea; he tended to come up with such crazy theories, most of which had no possible basis in fact. Abdul had listened to this one like most that Moassim had come out with before, with a healthy dose of speculation, but as he listened, the idea toyed with him: it seemed to gain substance, to become a possibility. So Abdul had decided to try modelling the plan, to plug the specifications into a computer and see what would happen.

The idea ran thus. The Earth's crust was a pretty robust thing, and could take small perturbations like volcano eruptions, or climate shifts, in its stride. This was only the case when these shocks were delivered in solitary, however: one large eruption or one sudden cooling was no real problem, but a prolonged series could become a problem.

That was the root of Moassim's theory: apply a large enough number of significant but relatively small shocks to the crust, and it would dissolve over a large area. Moassim saw it as the ideal strike: highly sophisticated, beyond the comprehension of the enemy. Abdul hadn't been so sure, which was why he'd decided to try it out mathematically first.

Abdul had set up a bank of computers to model the chain of detonation as per Moassim's theory, looking for specific places and times where the chain could best be maintained. Each night, a build process would run the tweaked parameters, and change them a little, heading towards the ideal point: the longest possible chain for a given amount of energy input.

Last night, the computer bank had hit that ideal point. Small amounts of antimatter, placed at the coordinates indicated by the printout and then detonated in sequence, would cause the crust of the European plate to resonate; more detonations, as detailed by the model, would mean total dissolution of the crust across the European area.

It was a vindication: the plan would work. There was just one snag: Abdul didn't know of anyone in the world who could produce antimatter in any quantity, and he was going to need a lot.