"The Long Watch" by Robert A. Heinlein.
"Nine ships blasted off from Moon Base. Once in space, eight of them formed a globe around the smallest. They held this formation all the way to Earth.
"The small ship displayed the insignia of an admiral-yet there was no living thing of any sort in her. She was not even a passenger ship, but a drone, a robot ship intended for radioactive cargo. This trip she carried nothing but a lead coffin and a Geiger counter that was never quiet."
from the editorial After Ten Years, film 38, 17 June 2009, Archives of the N. Y. Times
JOHNNY DAHLQUIST blew smoke at the Geiger counter. He grinned wryly and tried it again. His whole body was radioactive by now. Even his breath, the smoke from his cigarette, could make the Geiger counter scream.
How long had he been here? Time doesn't mean much on the Moon. Two days? Three? A week? He let his mind run back: the last clearly marked time in his mind was when the Executive Officer had sent for him, right after breakfast
"Lieutenant Dahlquist, reporting to the Executive Officer."
Colonel Towers looked up. "Ah, John Ezra. Sit down, Johnny. Cigarette?"
Johnny sat down, mystified but flattered. He admired Colonel Towers, for his brilliance, his ability to dominate, and for his battle record. Johnny had no battle record; he had been commissioned on completing his doctor's degree in nuclear physics and was now junior bomb officer of Moon Base.
The Colonel wanted to talk politics; Johnny was puzzled. Finally Towers had come to the point; it was not safe (so he said) to leave control of the world in political hands; power must be held by a scientifically selected group. In short the Patrol.
Johnny was startled rather than shocked. As an abstract idea, Towers' notion sounded plausible. The League of Nations had folded up; what would keep the United Nations from breaking up, too, and thus lead to another World War. "And you know how bad such a war would be, Johnny."
Johnny agreed. Towers said he was glad that Johnny got the point. The senior bomb officer could handle the work, but it was better to have both specialists.
Johnny sat up with a jerk. "You are going to do something about it?" He had thought the Exec was just talking.
Towers smiled. "We're not politicians; we don't just talk. We act."
Johnny whistled. "When does this start?"
Towers flipped a switch. Johnny was startled to hear his own voice, then identified the recorded conversation as having taken place in the junior officers' messroom. A political argument he remembered, which he had walked out on . . . a good thing, too! But being spied on annoyed him.
Towers switched it off. "We have acted," he said. "We know who is safe and who isn't. Take Kelly" He waved at the loud-speaker. "Kelly is politically unreliable. You noticed he wasn't at breakfast?"
"Huh? I thought he was on watch."
"Kelly's watch-standing days are over. Oh, relax; he isn't hurt."
Johnny thought this over. "Which list am I on?" he asked. "Safe or unsafe?"
"Your name has a question mark after it. But I have said all along that you could be depended on." He grinned engagingly. "You won't make a liar of me, Johnny?"
Dahlquist didn't answer; Towers said sharply, "Come now what do you think of it? Speak up."
"Well, if you ask me, you've bitten off more than you can chew. While it's true that Moon Base controls the Earth, Moon Base itself is a sitting duck for a ship. One bomb blooie!"
Towers picked up a message form and handed it over; it read: I HAVE YOUR CLEAN LAUNDRY - ZACK. "That means every bomb in the Trygve Lie has been put out of commission. I have reports from every ship we need worry about." He stood up. "Think it over and see me after lunch. Major Morgan needs your help right away to change control frequencies on the bombs."
"The control frequencies?"
"Naturally. We don't want the bombs jammed before they reach their targets."
"What? You said the idea was to prevent war."
Towers brushed it aside. "There won't be a warjust a psychological demonstration, an unimportant town or two. A little bloodletting to save an all-out war. Simple arithmetic."
He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "You aren't squeamish, or you wouldn't be a bomb officer. Think of it as a surgical operation. And think of your family."
Johnny Dahlquist had been thinking of his family. "Please, sir, I want to see the Commanding Officer."
Towers frowned. "The Commodore is not available. As you know, I speak for him. See me againafter lunch."
The Commodore was decidedly not available; the Commodore was dead. But Johnny did not know that.
Dahlquist walked back to the messroom, bought cigarettes, sat down and had a smoke. He got up, crushed out the butt, and headed for the Base's west airlock. There he got into his space suit and went to the lockmaster. "Open her up, Smitty."
The marine looked surprised. "Can't let anyone out on the surface without word from Colonel Towers, sir. Hadn't you heard?"
"Oh, yes! Give me your order book." Dahlquist took it, wrote a pass for himself, and signed it "by direction of Colonel Towers." He added, "Better call the Executive Officer and check it."
The lockmaster read it and stuck the book in his pocket. "Oh, no, Lieutenant. Your word's good."
"Hate to disturb the Executive Officer, eh? Don't blame you." He stepped in, closed the inner door, and waited for the air to be sucked out.
Out on the Moon's surface he blinked at the light and hurried to the track-rocket terminus; a car was waiting. He squeezed in, pulled down the hood, and punched the starting button. The rocket car flung itself at the hills, dived through and came out on a plain studded with projectile rockets, like candles on a cake. Quickly it dived into a second tunnel through more hills. There was a stomach-wrenching deceleration and the car stopped at the underground atom-bomb armory.
As Dahlquist climbed out he switched on his walkie-talkie. The space-suited guard at the entrance came to port-arms. Dahlquist said, "Morning, Lopez," and walked by him to the airlock. He pulled it open.
The guard motioned him back. "Hey! Nobody goes in without the Executive Officer's say-so." He shifted his gun, fumbled in his pouch and got out a paper. "Read it, Lieutenant."
Dahlquist waved it away. "I drafted that order myself. You read it; you've misinterpreted it."
"I don't see how, Lieutenant."
Dahlquist snatched the paper, glanced at it, then pointed to a line. "See? 'except persons specifically designated by the Executive Officer.' That's the bomb officers, Major Morgan and me."
The guard looked worried. Dahlquist said, "Damn it, look up 'specifically designated'it's under 'Bomb Room, Security, Procedure for,' in your standing orders. Don't tell me you left them in the barracks!"
"Oh, no, sir! I've got 'em." The guard reached into his pouch. Dahlquist gave him back the sheet; the guard took it, hesitated, then leaned his weapon against his hip, shifted the paper to his left hand, and dug into his pouch with his right.
Dahlquist grabbed the gun, shoved it between the guard's legs, and jerked. He threw the weapon away and ducked into the airlock. As he slammed the door he saw the guard struggling to his feet and reaching for his side arm. He dogged the outer door shut and felt a tingle in his fingers as a slug struck the door.
He flung himself at the inner door, jerked the spill lever, rushed back to the outer door and hung his weight on the handle. At once he could feel it stir. The guard was lifting up; the lieutenant was pulling down, with only his low Moon weight to anchor him. Slowly the handle raised before his eyes.
Air from the bomb room rushed into the lock through the spill valve. Dahlquist felt his space suit settle on his body as the pressure in the lock began to equal the pressure in the suit. He quit straining and let the guard raise the handle. It did not matter; thirteen tons of air pressure now held the door closed.
He latched open the inner door to the bomb room, so that it could not swing shut. As long as it was open, the airlock could not operate; no one could enter.
Before him in the room, one for each projectile rocket, were the atom bombs, spaced in rows far enough apart to defeat any faint possibility of spontaneous chain reaction. They were the deadliest things in the known universe, but they were his babies. He had placed himself between them and anyone who would misuse them.
But, now that he was here, he had no plan to use his temporary advantage.
The speaker on the wall sputtered into life. "Hey! Lieutenant! What goes on here? You gone crazy?" Dahlquist did not answer. Let Lopez stay confused it would take him that much longer to make up his mind what to do. And Johnny Dahlquist needed as many minutes as he could squeeze. Lopez went on protesting. Finally he shut up.
Johnny had followed a blind urge not to let the bombs, his bombs, be used for "demonstrations on unimportant towns." But what to do next? Well, Towers couldn't get through the lock. Johnny would sit tight until hell froze over.
Don't kid yourself, John Ezra! Towers could get in. Some high explosive against the outer door then the air would whoosh out, our boy Johnny would drown in blood from his burst lungs and the bombs would be sitting there, unhurt. They were built to stand the jump from Moon to Earth; vacuum would not hurt them at all.
He decided to stay in his space suit; explosive decompression didn't appeal to him. Come to think about it, death from old age was his choice.
Or they could drill a hole, let out the air, and open the door without wrecking the lock. Or Towers might even have a new airlock built outside the old. Not likely, Johnny thought; a coup d'etat depended on speed. Towers was almost sure to take the quickest way, blasting. And Lopez was probably calling the Base right now. Fifteen minutes for Towers to suit up and get here, maybe a short dicker, then whoosh! the party is over.
In fifteen minutes the bombs might fall back into the hands of the conspirators; in fifteen minutes he must make the bombs unusable.
An atom bomb is just two or more pieces of fissionable metal, such as plutonium. Separated, they are no more explosive than a pound of butter; slapped together, they explode. The complications lie in the gadgets and circuits and gun used to slap them together in the exact way and at the exact time and place required. .
These circuits, the bomb's "brain," are easily destroyed but the bomb itself is hard to destroy because of its very simplicity. Johnny decided to smash the "brains"and quickly!
The only tools at hand were simple ones used in handling the bombs. Aside from a Geiger counter, the speaker on the walkie-talkie circuit, a television rig to the base, and the bombs themselves, the room was bare. A bomb to be worked on was taken elsewhere not through fear of explosion, but to reduce radiation exposure for personnel. The radioactive material in a bomb is buried in a "tamper" in these bombs, gold. Gold stops alpha, beta, and much of the deadly gamma radiation but not neutrons.
The slippery, poisonous neutrons which plutonium gives off had to escape, or a chain reaction explosion would result. The room was bathed in an invisible, almost undetectable rain of neutrons. The place was unhealthy; regulations called for staying in it as short a time as possible.
The Geiger counter clicked off the "background" radiation, cosmic rays, the trace of radioactivity in the Moon's crust, and secondary radioactivity set up all through the room by neutrons. Free neutrons have the nasty trait of infecting what they strike, making it radioactive, whether it be concrete wall or human body. In time the room would have to be abandoned.
Dahlquist twisted a knob on the Geiger counter; the instrument stopped clicking. He had used a suppressor circuit to cut out noise of "background" radiation at the level then present. It reminded him uncomfortably of the danger of staying here. He took out the radiation exposure film all radiation personnel carry; it was a direct-response type and had been fresh when he arrived. The most sensitive end was faintly darkened already. Half way down the film a red line crossed it. Theoretically, if the wearer was exposed to enough radioactivity in a week to darken the film to that line, he was, as Johnny reminded himself, a "dead duck."
Off came the cumbersome space suit; what he needed was speed. Do the job and surrenderbetter to be a prisoner than to linger in a place as "hot" as this.
He grabbed a ball hammer from the tool rack and got busy, pausing only to switch off the television pick-up. The first bomb bothered him. He started to smash the cover plate of the "brain," then stopped, filled with reluctance. All his life he had prized fine apparatus.
He nerved himself and swung; glass tinkled, metal creaked. His mood changed; he began to feel a shameful pleasure in destruction. He pushed on with enthusiasm, swinging, smashing, destroying!
So intent was he that he did not at first hear his name called.
"Dahlquist! Answer me! Are you there?"
He wiped sweat and looked at the TV screen. Towers' perturbed features stared out.
Johnny was shocked to find that he had wrecked only six bombs. Was he going to be caught before he could finish? Oh, no! He had to finish. Stall, son, stall! "Yes, Colonel? You called me?"
"I certainly did! What's the meaning of this?" "I'm sorry, Colonel."
Towers' expression relaxed a little. "Turn on your pick-up, Johnny, I can't see you. What was that noise?"
"The pick-up is on," Johnny lied. "It must be out of order. That noise, uh, to tell the truth, Colonel, I was fixing things so that nobody could get in here."
Towers hesitated, then said firmly, "I'm going to assume that you are sick and send you to the Medical Officer. But I want you to come out of there, right away. That's an order, Johnny."
Johnny answered slowly. "I can't just yet, Colonel. I came here to make up my mind and I haven't quite made it up. You said to see you after lunch."
"I meant you to stay in your quarters."
"Yes, sir. But I thought I ought to stand watch on the bombs, in case I decided you were wrong."
"It's not for you to decide, Johnny. I'm your superior officer.
You are sworn to obey me."
"Yes, sir." This was wasting time; the old fox might have a squad on the way now. "But I swore to keep the peace, too. Could you come out here and talk it over with me? I don't want to do the wrong thing."
Towers smiled. "A good idea, Johnny. You wait there. I'm sure you'll see the light." He switched off.
"There," said Johnny. "I hope you're convinced that I'm a half wit you slimy mistake!" He picked up the hammer, ready to use the minutes gained.
He stopped almost at once; it dawned on him that wrecking the "brains" was not enough. There were no spare "brains," but there was a well-stocked electronics shop. Morgan could jury-rig control circuits for bombs. Why, he could himself, not a neat job, but one that would work. Damnation! He would have to wreck the bombs themselves and in the next ten minutes.
But a bomb was solid chunks of metal, encased in a heavy tamper, all tied in with a big steel gun. It couldn't be done, not in ten minutes.
Of course, there was one way. He knew the control circuits; he also knew how to beat them. Take this bomb: if he took out the safety bar, unhooked the proximity circuit, shorted the delay circuit, and cut in the arming circuit by handthen unscrewed that and reached in there, he could, with just a long, stiff wire, set the bomb off.
Blowing the other bombs and the valley itself to Kingdom Come.
Also Johnny Dahlquist. That was the rub.
All this time he was doing what he had thought out, up to the step of actually setting off the bomb. Ready to go, the bomb seemed to threaten, as if crouching to spring. He stood up, sweating.
He wondered if he had the courage. He did not want to funk and hoped that he would. He dug into his jacket and took out a picture of Edith and the baby. "Honeychile," he said, "if I get out of this, I'll never even try to beat a red light." He kissed the picture and put it back. There was nothing to do but wait.
What was keeping Towers? Johnny wanted to make sure that Towers was in blast range. What a joke on the jerk! Me sitting here, ready to throw the switch on him. The idea tickled him; it led to a better: why blow himself up alive?
There was another way to rig it, a "dead man" control. Jigger up some way so that the last step, the one that set off the bomb, would not happen as long as he kept his hand on a switch or a lever or something. Then, if they blew open the door, or shot him, or anything up goes the balloon!
Better still, if he could hold them off with the threat of it, sooner or later help would come Johnny was sure that most of the Patrol was not in this stinking conspiracy and then: Johnny comes marching home! What a reunion! He'd resign and get a teaching job; he'd stood his watch.
All the while, he was working. Electrical? No, too little time. Make it a simple mechanical linkage. He had it doped out but had hardly begun to build it when the loudspeaker called him. "Johnny?"
"That you, Colonel?" His hands kept busy.
"Let me in."
"Well, now, Colonel, that wasn't in the agreement." Where in blue blazes was something to use as a long lever?
"I'll come in alone, Johnny, I give you my word. We'll talk face to face."
His word! "We can talk over the speaker, Colonel." Hey, that was it, a yardstick, hanging on the tool rack.
"Johnny, I'm warning you. Let me in, or I'll blow the door off."
A wire he needed a wire, fairly long and stiff. He tore the antenna from his suit. "You wouldn't do that, Colonel. It would ruin the bombs."
"Vacuum won't hurt the bombs. Quit stalling."
"Better check with Major Morgan. Vacuum won't hurt them; explosive decompression would wreck every circuit." The Colonel was not a bomb specialist; he shut up for several minutes. Johnny went on working.
"Dahlquist," Towers resumed, "that was a clumsy lie. I checked with Morgan. You have sixty seconds to get into your suit, if you aren't already. I'm going to blast the door."
"No, you won't," said Johnny. "Ever hear of a 'dead man' switch?" Now for a counterweightand a sling."
"Eh? What do you mean?"
"I've rigged number seventeen to set off by hand. But I put in a gimmick. It won't blow while I hang on to a strap I've got in my hand. But if anything happens to me up she goes! You are about fifty feet from the blast center. Think it over."
There was a short silence. "I don't believe you."
"No? Ask Morgan. He'll believe me. He can inspect it, over the TV pick-up." Johnny lashed the belt of his space suit to the end of the yardstick.
"You said the pick-up was out of order."
"So I lied. This time I'll prove it. Have Morgan call me."
Presently Major Morgan's face appeared. "Lieutenant Dahlquist?"
"Hi, Stinky. Wait a sec." With great care Dahlquist made one last connection while holding down the end of the yardstick. Still careful, he shifted his grip to the belt, sat down on the floor, stretched an arm and switched on the TV pick-up. "Can you see me, Stinky?"
"I can see you," Morgan answered stiffly. "What is this nonsense?"
"A little surprise I whipped up." He explained it, what circuits he had cut out, what ones had been shorted, just how the jury-rigged mechanical sequence fitted in.
Morgan nodded. "But you're bluffing, Dahlquist, I feel sure that you haven't disconnected the 'K' circuit. You don't have the guts to blow yourself up."
Johnny chuckled. "I sure haven't. But that's the beauty of it. It can't go off, so long as I am alive. If your greasy boss, ex-Colonel Towers, blasts the door, then I'm dead and the bomb goes off. It won't matter to me, but it will to him. Better tell him." He switched off.
Towers came on over the speaker shortly. "Dahlquist?"
"I hear you."
''There's no need to throw away your life. Come out and you will be retired on full pay. You can go home to your family. That's a promise."
Johnny got mad. "You keep my family out of this!"
"Think of them, man."
"Shut up. Get back to your hole. I feel a need to scratch and this whole shebang might just explode in your lap."
Johnny sat up with a start. He had dozed, his hand hadn't let go the sling, but he had the shakes when he thought about it.
Maybe he should disarm the bomb and depend on their not daring to dig him out? But Towers' neck was already in hock for treason; Towers might risk it. If he did and the bomb were disarmed, Johnny would be dead and Towers would have the bombs. No, he had gone this far; he wouldn't let his baby girl grow up in a dictatorship just to catch some sleep.
He heard the Geiger counter clicking and remembered having used the suppressor circuit. The radioactivity in the room must be increasing, perhaps from scattering the "brain" circuits-the circuits were sure to be infected; they had lived too long too close to plutonium. He dug out his film.
The dark area was spreading toward the red line.
He put it back and said, "Pal, better break this deadlock or you are going to shine like a watch dial." It was a figure of speech; infected animal tissue does not glow it simply dies, slowly.
The TV screen lit up; Towers' face appeared. "Dahlquist? I want to talk to you."
"Go fly a kite."
"Let's admit you have us inconvenienced."
"Inconvenienced, hell I've got you stopped."
"For the moment. I'm arranging to get more bombs"
"but you are slowing us up. I have a proposition."
"Wait. When this is over I will be chief of the world government. If you cooperate, even now, I will make you my administrative head."
Johnny told him what to do with it. Towers said, "Don't be stupid. What do you gain by dying?"
Johnny grunted. "Towers, what a prime stinker you are.
You spoke of my family. I'd rather see them dead than living under a two-bit Napoleon like you. Now go away I've got some thinking to do."
Towers switched off.
Johnny got out his film again. It seemed no darker but it re-minded him forcibly that time was running out. He was hungry and thirsty and he could not stay awake forever. It took four days to get a ship up from Earth; he could not expect rescue any sooner. And he wouldn't last four days once the darkening spread past the red line he was a goner.
His only chance was to wreck the bombs beyond repair, and get out before that film got much darker.
He thought about ways, then got busy. He hung a weight on the sling, tied a line to it. If Towers blasted the door, he hoped to jerk the rig loose before he died.
There was a simple, though arduous, way to wreck the bombs beyond any capacity of Moon Base to repair them. The heart of each was two hemispheres of plutonium, their flat surface polished smooth to permit perfect contact when slapped together. Anything less would prevent the chain reaction on which atomic explosion depended.
Johnny started taking apart one of the bombs.
He had to bash off four lugs, then break the glass envelope around the inner assembly. Aside from that the bomb came apart easily. At last he had in front of him two gleaming, mirror-perfect half globes.
A blow with the hammerand one was no longer perfect. Another blow and the second cracked like glass; he had trapped its crystalline structure just right.
Hours later, dead tired, he went back to the armed bomb. Forcing himself to steady down, with extreme care he disarmed it. Shortly its silvery hemispheres too were useless. There was no longer a usable bomb in the room but huge fortunes in the most valuable, most poisonous, and most deadly metal in the known world were spread around the floor.
Johnny looked at the deadly stuff. "Into your suit and out of here, son," he said aloud. "I wonder what Towers will say?"
He walked toward the rack, intending to hang up the hammer. As he passed, the Geiger counter chattered wildly.
Plutonium hardly affects a Geiger counter; secondary infection from plutonium does. Johnny looked at the hammer, then held it closer to the Geiger counter. The counter screamed.
Johnny tossed it hastily away and started back toward his suit.
As he passed the counter it chattered again. He stopped short.
He pushed one hand close to the counter. Its clicking picked up to a steady roar. Without moving he reached into his pocket and took out his exposure film.
It was dead black from end to end.
Plutonium taken into the body moves quickly to bone marrow. Nothing can be done; the victim is finished. Neutrons from it smash through the body, ionizing tissue, transmuting atoms into radioactive isotopes, destroying and killing. The fatal dose is unbelievably small; a mass a tenth the size of a grain of table salt is more than enougha dose small enough to enter through the tiniest scratch. During the historic "Manhattan Project" immediate high amputation was considered the only possible first-aid measure.
Johnny knew all this but it no longer disturbed him. He sat onthe floor, smoking a hoarded cigarette, and thinking. The events of his long watch were running through his mind.
He blew a puff of smoke at the Geiger counter and smiled without humor to hear it chatter more loudly. By now even his breath was "hot" carbon-14, he supposed, exhaled from his blood stream as carbon dioxide. It did not matter.
There was no longer any point in surrendering, nor would he give Towers the satisfaction he would finish out this watch right here. Besides, by keeping up the bluff that one bomb was ready to blow, he could stop them from capturing the raw material from which bombs were made. That might be important in the long run.
He accepted, without surprise, the fact that he was not unhappy. There was a sweetness about having no further worries of any sort. He did not hurt, he was not uncomfortable, he was no longer even hungry. Physically he still felt fine and his mind was at peace. He was dead, he knew that he was dead; yet for a time he was able to walk and breathe and see and feel.
He was not even lonesome. He was not alone; there were comrades with him, the boy with his finger in the dike, Colonel Bowie, too ill to move but insisting that he be carried across the line, the dying Captain of the Chesapeake still with deathless challenge on his lips, Rodger Young peering into the gloom. They gathered about him in the dusky bomb room.
And of course there was Edith. She was the only one he was aware of. Johnny wished that he could see her face more clearly. Was she angry? Or proud and happy?
Proud though unhappy he could see her better now and even feel her hand. He held very still.
Presently his cigarette burned down to his fingers. He took a final puff, blew it at the Geiger counter, and put it out. It was his last. He gathered several butts and fashioned a roll-your-own with a bit of paper found in a pocket. He lit it carefully and settled back to wait for Edith to show up again. He was very happy.
He was still propped against the bomb case, the last of his salvaged cigarettes cold at his side, when the speaker called out again. "Johnny? Hey, Johnny! Can you hear me? This is Kelly. It's all over. The Lafayette landed and Towers blew his brains out. Johnny? Answer me."
When they opened the outer door, the first man in carried a Geiger counter in front of him on the end of a long pole. He stopped at the threshold and backed out hastily. "Hey, chief!" he called. "Better get some handling equipment uh, and a lead coffin, too."
"Four days it took the little ship and her escort to reach Earth. Four days while all of Earth's people awaited her arrival. For ninety-eight hours all commercial programs were of} television; instead there was an endless dirge-the Dead March tram Saul, the Valhalla theme, Going Home, the Patrol's own Landing Orbit.
"The nine ships landed at Chicago Port. A drone tractor removed the casket from the small ship; the ship was then refueled and blasted off in an escape trajectory, thrown away into outer space, never again to be used for a lesser purpose.
"The tractor progressed to the Illinois town where Lieutenant Dahlquist had been born, while the dirge continued. There it placed the casket on a pedestal, inside a barrier marking the distance of safe approach. Space marines, arms reversed and heads bowed, stood guard around it; the crowds stayed outside this circle. And still the dirge continued.
"When enough time had passed, long, long after the heaped flowers had withered, the lead casket was enclosed in marble, just as you see it today."