It’s my 45th Birthday! Have a short story as a party favour!

If you are at Capricon this weekend, I have cake for you. My mom’s poundcake, which is my very favourite cake. Come by the autograph table from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm for cake. Cake, cake, cake…

But for those of you who are far away, and who cannot have any of my mother’s amazing cake, I have a science fiction short story as a party favour. This originally appeared in 2013 in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited John Joseph Adams and is in my Punchcard Punk universe. For those curious types, it takes place prior to “Lady Astronaut of Mars.”

 We Interrupt This Broadcast

by Mary Robinette Kowal

hole-kartenlocher-62897_1920Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. The last thing he needed was to cough blood onto the Beluga program source cards. Across the cramped lab, Mira raised her head and stared with concern. He hated worrying her.

Fidel’s ribs ached with the force of the cough. He held a handkerchief to his mouth, waiting for the fit to pass. For a long moment, he thought he would not be able to breathe again. The panic almost closed his throat completely, but he managed a shuddering breath without coughing. Then another. He straightened slowly and pulled the cloth away from his mouth. In the glob of sputum, a bright spot of scarlet glistened.

Damn. That usually only happened in the morning. He folded the handkerchief over so it wouldn’t show, turned back to the 1402 and continued loading the source cards into the sturdy machine. Its fan hummed, masking some of the ragged sound of his breathing.

Mira cleared her throat. “Would water help?”

“I’m fine.” Fidel thumbed through the remaining manilla cards to make certain they were in the correct order. He had checked the serialization half a dozen times already, but anything was better than meeting Mira’s worried look. “The T.B. won’t kill me before we’re finished.”

Mira pursed her lips, painted a deep maroon. “I’m not worried about you finishing.”

“What are–” No. He did not want the answer to that question. “Good.”

She sneezed thrice, in rapid succession. On her, the sneezes sounded adorable, like a kitten.

“You still have that cold?”

She waved the question away, turning back to the 026 printer keyboard to punch a row of code into another card. Her dedication touched him. The Beluga program was huge and the verifier had tagged a score of corrupted data cards. He did not have time to send the cards back to one of the card punch girls upstairs–as if this were even an official project–and still be ready for broadcast. He had only one chance to intercept Asteroid 29085 1952 DA before it hurtled past the Earth’s orbit.

It had been a risk bringing Mira into the project, but when she asked for details he’d implied that it was classified and she left it at that. As far as the government was concerned, she had the security clearance necessary for the clerical work for which he’d officially employed her but then, the government didn’t know about Fidel’s Beluga program. They knew that he used this forgotten corner of the Pentagon’s basement to do research on ways to control spacecraft through computers. The additional program that he had devised to fit into the official project was something he had managed to keep hidden from everyone. So many times he had wished for someone to confide in and had nearly told Mira. But fear kept the words inside. Despite the years that he had known her, despite the strength of her mind, he feared that if she knew what he had created, he would lose her.

Ironic, that he now kept her close to be certain she was safe.

Fidel loaded the next set of cards into the feeder and stopped. On the top card, someone had drawn a red heart. He brushed the heart with his index finger; it was a smooth and waxy maroon, like a woman’s lips. The next card had an imprint of lips as if she had kissed the card. The one after that was blank.

He looked up across the lab, to Mira. She met his gaze evenly with a Mona Lisa smile.

Suddenly too warm, Fidel broke eye contact and loaded the cards, the nine edge face down. What kind of life would he have been able to give her anyway? Not a long life together, not happily ever after. Nine months in a sanatorium had done nothing for him except give him time to read the news out of Washington and brood.

Only his correspondence with Mira had kept him sane — knowing that she had agreed with him about the outrages against humanity. And what a relief it was to know that his was not a lone voice crying out: How dare they!

He had known what the Manhattan Project was when he had worked on it, but they were only supposed to use the A-Bomb once. The threat of it was supposed to be deterrent enough, and yes, yes, he had known that it would involve a demonstration. For that, he had remorse, coupled with acceptance of his sins.

The second town. Nagasaki. That had been unnecessary. And now… the new project. Launching bombs into space and holding them there, ready to rain terror on any country that disagreed with the United States. As if that were a surprise coming from President Dewey, an isolationist president who defeated Truman on the strength of his reputation as a “gangbuster.” His idea of foreign policy was to treat every other country like the gangs of New York. Well, no more.Fidel put the last of the cards in the 1402. “I’m ready to generate the object cards when you are.”

Mira nodded and did not look up from the 026. The clacking of the machine’s keys filled the room with chatter as she rekeyed Fidel’s code.

Her fine black hair clung to the nape of her neck. Fidel wet his lips, watching her work. The delicate bones of her wrists peeked from the sensible long-sleeved shirt she wore. Her fingers deftly found the keys without apparent attention from her. Mira stifled another sneeze, turning her head from the machine without breaking her rhythm. His heart ached watching her. Mira must be kept safely away from D.C. “Is everything still on for our trip tomorrow?” he asked.

She laughed without looking up from her work. “This is the third time you’ve asked in as many days,” she said. “Yes, I’m all packed.”

“Good.”

The punch machine clattered as she continued to work. “I’m glad you’re getting away from D.C. for a few days.”

“So am I. Happier that you’re coming with me.”

Her hands stopped on the keys and a frown creased her brow. “Fidel–“

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m just glad you’re getting away. D.C. isn’t good for you.”

Without thinking, he laughed and plunged into a fit of coughing. His lungs burned with every breath reminding him of the gift he was leaving the world.

He had run the calculations, punching the cards over and over to check his theory against numerical fact. Blowing up Washington would get rid of the corruption and greed, but it would rekindle the tensions of the second World War and lead to a destruction the likes of which man had never seen. An asteroid crashing into the city would seem like an Act of God. The shock waves and ash thrown up would affect the entire world. People would rally together, coming to the aid of a country shocked and devastated. It would be the dawn of a new Age of Enlightenment.

Fighting to control the coughing, Fidel pressed his handkerchief against his mouth to stifle the sound until he could breathe. “I’m okay,” he said.

“I’m sorry.” The distress in Mira’s voice forced him upright.

He tucked the handkerchief in his pocket without looking at it. “Don’t be. As you say, D.C. isn’t good for me.”

She twisted her fingers together. “Why don’t you rest while I finish up. I can run the last compile on my own and you can check the listing for errors afterwards.”

“I–“

“Please, Fidel. I worry about you.”

He had nothing he could say in response. She was right to worry about him and at the same time worry would do no good. His fate was sealed. Nodding, he settled in his chair. “All right. Let me know if you need anything.”

While Mira worked, Fidel let his head droop forward until his chin rested on his chest. If he could just close his eyes for a few minutes, he might be able to chase off the fatigue for a while longer.

#

A hand touched his shoulder and Fidel lurched upright in his chair. Mira stood beside him, a stack of punchcards in her hand. “Sorry to wake you.”

“No. It’s fine.” Fidel stood, trying to mask his fatigue and confusion. How long had he been asleep? The urge to check the cards one more time pulsed through him, but he’d done that enough and Mira was more than competent. “How did it go?”

“I haven’t run it yet. I… Will you check this?” She handed him the stack of cards, a few stuck out at ninety degrees from the others as flags. “They match the listing but I don’t think they’re right.”

He waited for enough of his drowsiness to drop away for her sentence to make sense. How could the cards be wrong if they matched his code? She was a smart girl but it was impossible that she could be critiquing his programming. Frowning, Fidel accepted the cards and sat down at his desk again. Flipping through the cards, he compared each to the lines of code he had originally written. The code handled the timing of the rocket’s navigation. It was scheduled to start the takeover on March 1st, three days from today and everything matched up. Mira hovered next to the desk, twining her fingers together.

To reassure her, he jotted the numbers on the back of an envelope and redid the calculations leading in and out of that code. “I don’t see any errors here.”

“What about leap day?” Mira asked.

Numb, Fidel stared at her. A blue vein beat in her neck as she stood on first one foot then the other. Leap day. Which meant that the rocket would not fire until a day late, by which point the asteroid would be gone. He shoved aside the pile of papers on his desk to uncover the ink blotter calendar there, as though Mira had made leap day up. Twenty-nine days. And he had only accounted for twenty-eight of them.

“My god.” His hands shook as he picked up the cards and began to recalculate. One chance to save the world and he had almost missed it.

“Then it is an error.” Mira nodded, pressing her lips together.

“Yes, thank you for catching that.” His pencil flew over the paper. The changes were minor since the only bug in the code was how long the program lay dormant before triggering. The launch date, though, was unchanged; only the interval between had altered. Which meant that he had to make these changes quickly. “Start keying these as I hand them to you.”

The lab vibrated with the sound of Mira’s keypunch machine as she replaced the six cards she had flagged. As she finished them, he flipped through the deck to check the serialization one more time and nodded, grunting in satisfaction.

“Well…” he said. “Shall we?” Fidel winced at the banality of his own words. Perhaps he could write something in his journal that sounded more appropriate to the moment.

Straightening, Fidel let his hand drop to the 1402.

Mira ducked her head and lifted one hand to rub the base of her neck as if she were pained. “Fidel–“

He lifted his finger and waited for her to continue. She bit her lip studying the cards in the machine. He waited. “Yes?”

“Are you… are you sure?”

“Sure about what?” His heart sped and he glanced at his desk, but the drawer with his journal was locked and it was only there that he had recorded his thoughts. She could not know.

She touched the cards. “Sure…Sure that your calculations are all correct?”

“I believe so.” He had gone through the cards often enough that he felt certain and time was running out. He put his finger back on the start key. “Thanks to the error you caught.”

“No…” she said. “I mean the other calculations. The ones about the asteroid.”

His throat started to close. “Asteroid?”

Mira nodded, tears brimming in her eyes. “I read the cards.”

“You read them?” He seemed only able to ask questions.

“So many people…” she said, trailing off as she choked back tears. “That’s why we’re leaving the city tomorrow isn’t it?”

He removed his hand from the key and wiped it over his face. She was never to have known. Such a soft and gentle heart should never be a party to what he was unleashing on the world. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d divided the cards up among the punchcard girls. I didn’t think any of you had the whole program.”

“I– I was interested in what you were doing so I printed a second copy of the listing when we ran it.”

“I see.” Fidel pressed his fingers against the center of his forehead, rubbing them in a circle. “Then yes, I am certain. Did you tell anyone what you read?”

“No.” She grimaced. “It’s just… This is what you faced when you worked on the Manhattan Project, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” He put his finger on the start key. “I had… I had initially planned to stay in the city when it happened. The T.B., you know. I thought it would be faster this way.”

A muscle pulsed in the corner of her jaw. “Why did you change your mind?”

“You. I wanted to see you safely out of the city. I wanted to know that I had not killed you.”

She covered her mouth, eyes bright with tears, and turned away.

“Do you…” he began. All of the work he had done, all of his calculations–he would give it all up for her. “Do you want me to call it off?”

Her voice was hoarse. “No. It’s just…. all those people.”

“It can’t be helped. But the new world, Mira. Oh, it will be chaos and the world will suffer at first but the dawn that follows…”

She straightened and turned back to him, placing her soft hand over his where it rested on the keys. Compressing her mouth, she gave a small nod and pressed down on his hand.

Fidel pushed the start key with a harsh click, and the machine began feeding the cards, whirring and clunking as it joggled the cards and then fed each piece of the program into it. From there it would get loaded into the magnetic memory tapes of the N5 rockets scheduled to launch in the morning, carrying a nuclear warhead to orbit. On March 1, his program would activate and override the rocket’s programming. The rocket would appear to lose communication with ground control, but it in reality it would be hurtling toward Asteroid 29085 1952 DA. Fidel’s program would cause it intercept the asteroid and redirect it to Earth and Washington.

No one else could program this. No one else would even think it was possible to hit a target so small in the vastness of space, but for Fidel, the numbers had always danced at his command.

Mira kept hold of his hand as they sat down to wait for the program to compile. He kept his focus on the machine rather than what mattered to him. She sat silently by him, shoulders hunched as though against the clatter of the card reader.

When the last one rattled through the machine and dropped into the finish tray, Fidel let out a long, careful, sigh. “It is finished.”

She squeezed his hand. “I thought it was just beginning?”

“More like a hard reset,” he said. He held her hand, tracing the lines of her palm with his thumb, grateful that he would not have to spend his remaining months alone before the T. B. took him.

Mira echoed his sigh and then sneezed, daintily. A cough followed, hacking and wet. He looked at her in alarm.

Mira waved her hand to brush his concern away. “It’s nothing, just a tickle in my throat.”

But he knew what he had heard. “Are you certain?”

She pressed her fist against her mouth and stared at the floor for a long moment. Lifting her head, Mira looked at him with bright eyes, chin firm. “Maybe we both should stay in D.C.”

Fidel gripped her other hand harder and bowed his head. In his efforts to protect her, he had killed her anyway. “Yes,” he said, “perhaps we should.”

END

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18 Responses

  1. Nene Ormes

    Thank you for the story! I was hoping for one (and looking forward to it), so even if I miss out on your mothers tasty cake I celebrate your day with your fiction.

  2. Sally

    Happy birthday, Mary!

    If your mother’s pound cake is like mine’s (and I bet it is), I’m truly sorry to be missing it.

    (Did the asteroid actually hit DC?)

  3. denelian

    oh GODS, Mary… what a gut-punch of a story.

    the question here is; would he have had the strength to this, if he weren’t already dying? [if strength it is… i wonder; would we, today consider it “strength”, if the inventors of the A-bomb had refused to let it be used? hrm, something for me to poke at. and anyone else who wants to, of course.]

    my birthday is the 12th, so every year, you give us a story and it FEELS like you’re giving it us for *my* birthday *giggle* i know it’s not true, but…

    well. Aquarians unite or untie or whatever our slogan should be 😀

    1. Hello

      Happy birthday! 🙂

      Btw, did you change your blog somehow? I usually access it on a mobile device, and now it keeps shunting me to the mobile version of your blog; even when I click full site. I know the regular site is there because it appears when I try to add comments on old posts. Just wondered. Thanks

  4. Pam Adams

    You know, there’s probably some psychologist doing research on why we love stories that kick us in the teeth.

    Sigh.

  5. Hello

    Thanks – your blog is back to normal now. Though of course you can change it however you’d like. 🙂 Sorry to have you do tech work on your birthday weekend.

  6. Hello

    Really? Weird. Your website was a blue-theme yesterday with a funky drop-down menu. I only commented as it was hard to navigate. Maybe it was just some random wordpress-update glitch.

    Still, Happy Birthday anyway. I hope you enjoyed your cake.

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