“Panama Cataclysm” by Fyodor Berezin

PREFACE (from the WELL “State of The World” discussion in early 2016)

www.well.com

inkwell.vue.487 : Bruce Sterling & Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2016

permalink #73 of 179: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 9 Jan 16 03:34

*I’ve got an anecdote on the Ukraine situation.

*Last year I edited “Twelve Tomorrows,” which is MIT TechnologyReview’s annual science fiction issue. I decided to commission a work from the Deputy Defense Minister of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, which is a warlord enclave in rebel Eastern Ukraine.

This guy, Fyodor (formerly he used “Fedor,” the Ukrainian spelling) Berezin, is a career military science-fiction writer who used to be a captain in the former Soviet Union’s nuclear missile forces.

Captain Berezin also writes space-opera sci-fi, but his favorite subgenre is near-future military speculation. Much of his work concerns the prospects of war breaking out in his own region, and Russia getting back on its feet by rising to the challenge of foreign aggression.

Captain Berezin’s immediate boss in Donetsk, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, was the major warlord figure in the early rebellion, and also a fantasy novelist. The intimate involvement of science fiction writing in this dismal shooting-war was something that rather concerned me.

So I contacted Berezin and got him to write a speculative military science fiction story specifically for Americans. Berezin delivered the story, which, in its English translation, is called “Panama Cataclysm.” It details a future nuclear terrorist attack on an American aircraft carrier in the Panama Canal.

Everybody at “Twelve Tomorrows” thought it was pretty good, and just what one would want to hear from a guy with Berezin’s point-of-view. We had it proofread, typeset, all that good stuff.

Then we figured out that it was illegal to pay Berezin. As a warlord, he’s been placed an a US State Department financial sanctions list. Since we couldn’t pay him, MIT and Technology Review couldn’t print the story.

These financial sanctions lists are very typical of the Twenty-Teens. Tens of thousands of people are on them. They’re effective in peculiar ways; in the case of this Russian-speaking science fiction writer, they’re a form of censorship.

Sure, he can write whatever he wants, but he can’t do business. It’s like the State Department choking off the credit cards of Wikileaks. They’re hostiles, so, you know, shut off their money.

As a writer, I wouldn’t want this done to me; obviously it’s a blatant threat to free expression, but I’m thinking that these sanctions methods are going to multiply. States and non-state actors alike are gonna find ways to extralegally harass opponents by making them economic non-persons.

The US is pioneering it because they’ve got so much global finance clout, but since the finance and credit systems are electronic now, I don’t doubt there’s a lot of other, clever ways to do it.

Given that economic sanctions lists exist, and they do, there’s no doubt that Berezin belongs on one. He fits their stated purpose.

He’s not a science fiction colleague who happens to sorta, kinda be a warlord. He was, and is, an armed and uniformed rebel in a city, Donetsk, that’s been blown to hell with heavy artillery in gruesome siege conditions. He’s a real-deal, no-kidding warlord who aided and abetted an armed secession to the best of his ability.

However, I consider it a pity that the machineries of the new Cold War denied him his say in a magazine I edited. In my opinion, this is precisely the kind of science fiction that Americans should be learning more about.

*************************************************************

Panama Cataclysm

by Fyodor Berezin

6,351 words

Translated by: Andrey Vasiliev and Bruce Sterling

It was dying. Like an allegorical whale, a huge beast run ashore with bad sonar echoes, lost at sea while on land, unable to locate itself.

The whale still lived, although it lived in a cruel world. No whale had seen a situation this dreadful since its ancestors had legs instead of flukes. The beached whale was dying in agony, but it could not evolve in reverse. Its hide would only parch faster, while its huge six-kilogram brain would turn into a clot of melted blubber.

The whale wanted to scream its pain, but it was dying silently. It had an acoustic blast that could madden entire shoals of mackerel, but in this alien environment it could not marshal a squeak.

So it was dying, although it was not a whale: it was vaster, denser, larger. In point of fact, even death was denied it. The whale was a symbiosis, a plethora of mechanisms. A complicated platform, multifunctional, not so organically complex as any live bacterium, but a swift and capable naval war machine. Fatal disaster had marooned it fifty meters above sea level. Fifty meters was no distance for a world-spanning vessel, yet it was paralyzed and perishing.

Trickles of seawater, which had once protected the whale, were flowing from its carcass. The bilge-water below its bulk was dwindling in the tropical sun. Why? It had blundered into an ambush. It had trusted a larger, but even more primitive mechanical arrangement: a world canal.

This great world canal fulfilled a function similar to a blood transfusion. This monstrous waterway was a continental artery uniting two huge oceans. Two hundred meters across, it pumped salt water through a system of locks, from one living sea to another.

Naturally, certain naive small things came into contact with this planetary artery, although they failed to perceive it as a global network. They managed the canal, season by turning season: the pumping torrents of seawater were hard work for the parasites. At least, such was the situation as seen by local small insects.

Now this monstrous global artery, dug through a pinching gap of mountain chains, had stopped pumping seawater. A giant scalpel had cut through it, stopping the flow. This fatal incision was killing the monster of iron, the allegoric whale that began our story, the largest sea-monster around. The dying whale was no merchant ship, and had never transported worldly goods, but to say that it had nothing to do with our tragedy would be wrong. Everything in the world was intertwined. Seriously, thoroughly.

#

It was a mere microbe, a creature less than an ant, which cut the oceanic artery. A creature’s physical size cannot determine the scale of its global action. This tiny microbe was not a hospital surgeon or a construction bulldozer. However, he did have a bachelor’s degree in business management.

Due to private circumstances — or, perhaps, a planetary cataclysm fit to drive entire communities of species into extinction — something had gone wrong with the microbe. The microbe was never successful in his university work. The microbe had a problem finding employment.

In his stricken region of the world, this was not a unique problem. The general catastrophe blew him around like a straw in the wind, until one day, he found good fortune in becoming a member of the “Group of World Liberation.”

The GWL were the microbe’s dubious acquaintances. They might have recruited him by accident, or maybe because of his useful European appearance. Thanks to plastic surgery, European looks were a market commodity by 2030: expensive for the Third World, but substantially cheaper elsewhere.

How do ordinary men ever become the extraordinary “brothers,” the “liberators”? Are men expendable by nature, or by the alignment of stars? What do they want, need, and understand, these G.W.L. brothers-liberators? How is it even possible to “liberate the world” in the period of universal imperialism? Of course they were terrorists.

Before cutting the oceanic artery, the microbe, Foška Džyurdže, a Serbian national and a genuine European, took part in several G.W.L terrorist attacks. Twice he was the main operative — the bomb-carrier. He was not a suicide bomber, nor did he feel suicidal. Bombers of a higher category, those with training and ability, did their work while never entering the impact zones of their deadly toys.

Consider the nature of the blast radius. In the first three decades of our twenty-first century, thanks to the comprehensive development of demolition technology, the impact zone of improvised explosive devices — or, to be precise, home-made, one-man bombs — increased dramatically. This meant that home-made bombers had to take a special care with safety. Foška Džyurdže complied with these rules, to the maximum practical extent. He was no man for mere talk.

He was proud of surviving the risks of his career, and he liked getting a proper reward for his hard work. Other bombers ground their teeth at the biased media coverage of their mayhem, but his one hundred-percent anti-imperialistic temperament helped him get over that.

Foška Džyurdže was well aware that the authorities always obscured the civilian casualty counts. For instance: consider four different five-story residences, suddenly exploding in flames in the wonderful city of Warsaw, Poland. We can ignore certain historical artillery bombardments in which the Red Army liberated Polish resistance warriors, but still: five skyscrapers demolished by a truck-bomb, and supposedly only “three people died, several were injured”, according to the official reports? Let us simply count the personal apartments inside those five burning buildings.

Well, of course the world has its miracles. But these wars — the information we are given, compared to the real world experience with a real stench of corpses — they are deeply intertwined. Which is the origin, which is the stinking sequel? That is no longer clear to anybody.

Be that as it may: despite, or maybe because of his lack of formal education, the microbe Foška Džyurdže was excessively self-assured. He should have been skeptical about the reward promised him. Extra zeros come easy to Arabic numerals.

#

A leviathan battle whale, trapped in the broken terrain of mountains. Yes, the whale was an aircraft carrier: that pure and simple. It had dominated land, air and sea, but now it was marooned and doomed in a waterless environment, high above sea level — what could be more embarrassing?

This aircraft carrier was named in honor of Fenimore Cooper, a famous American novelist of the 19th century. But the “Fenimore Cooper” lacked proper heritage. It was one among a new class of aircraft carriers. Due to a stark insufficiency of calculation and navigation data, the “Fenimore Cooper” was marooned in a range of alien mountains.

How could this stranded maritime device roam the world? It was powerful, but did Eurasia have any continental short cuts like Panama? Even given modern mapping technology, with sonar and satellites, did Europe and Asia offer convenient routes from the Gulf of Mexico through Panama, or around the Tierra Del Fuego? The planet had dark circumstances, the damned geopolitical circumstances… The problems that the “Fenimore Cooper” had been built to resolve.

The builders of this whale made everyone hurry: they went straight for the throat. This cared nothing for any spent fuel rods: we’re discussing a military nuclear engine able to cross the seven seas with no refueling. The problem was not the uranium rods: the problem was time.

The intelligent usage of time will nip geopolitical problems before they start. Naval aviation squadrons, which fly above nuclear hot shots in the fullness of time, can resolve tricky, unclear situations about detonations.

Now let us consider a geopolitical naval chokepoint such as the “Drake Passage.” What happens if supersonic aircraft over this tight airway are targeted with the massive shockwaves of nuclear explosions? What will be the best military solution? Can hydrogen bombs be tightly connected to a laser targeting ray? Can hydrogen bombs become the tools of precise carpet bombing of specified streets of some unfortunate megalopolis? Are these military options merely extremely undesirable, or are they on the scale of a megalopolis: are they inadmissible?

One hundred and fifteen billion US dollars have played their role, a decade ago. On the eve of an upcoming global oil crisis, a global oil and gas collapse — the Panama Canal was deepened before that event, and the main canal locks were modernized. That expenditure had to be justified somehow. How convenient, that this newest American aircraft carrier could pass through the harsh mountains of Panama.

The improvement of this ocean artery allowed even thousand-ton naval monsters to ooze through the locks of the Panama Canal. How can a military skeptic fail to believe in destiny? The wheels of fate may grind slowly, but they grind very fine.

What is the fate of the “Fenimore Cooper”? Instead of promoting stabilization for its mother country, the lost American warship has become an additional pain in the ass to offshored strategic command posts. If they could only bring the stricken warship back to the deep waters of the Atlantic, they might get it out of this tricky situation.

#

Foška Džyurdže’s self-assurance had always served him well. Caution is a virtue for combat engineers, but caution never gets the job done. Cautious people who live staid lives don’t get paid for global mayhem.

This time around, the Serbian adventurer might have too much self-assurance. Can an extra zero in the promised payment make up for the shattering power of a bomb? Add some naïve ignorance to that equation, and the skillful deception of his sponsors. Foška Džyurdže is a faithful mule for the device he transports.

The burden was massive, excessively massive for a tourist backpack. Foška Džyurdže shared the opinion given to him by “the experts:” the new, portable mine has a killing range of two hundred meters. A good range, but not so good as the big truck-bomb in Warsaw that instantly flattened five residential towers. Who cares about the casualty radius: for the professional trigger-man, it’s the detonator that matters. Those who fire the “hell machine” can laugh at those who complain about “inaccuracy.”

The professionals are a small elite. Each of them works independently, every man has a chosen substitute. Only eight professionals are needed. Once the job is done, when the law seeks vengeance, only one of them remains alive. He survives by luck.

The survivor had a close encounter with a military patrol. These uniformed soldiers were nowhere near a terrorist attack, but somehow, they felt responsible for the safety of their nation. The survivor will live a long time, but for the rest of his life, he will always wonder about his role in the chaos.

#

This story is well known. Only once in human history, one mighty empire managed to seal its borders from any foreign penetration. As all geopolitical experts know: when the empire failed to continue this achievement, it immediately collapsed. That empire was the Soviet Union, an empire which was defamed, and then buried with no honors.

The critical issue is that no other empire has ever achieved this feat, before or after. Not for lack of effort: in 2030, the world’s hottest, most unstable border was between Mexico and a global imperial state.

Theoretically, due to a border agreement, North America was guarded from any southern penetration. However, a multitude of new and old micro-countries had been gazing at the continental empire with an ever growing lust. A bacchanalia reigned in South America: with its European settlers long forgotten, large countries collapsed, while the small countries fought each other.

Some factions within certain nations pretended to expand toward outer space, but hunger, poverty and jealousy were the best kindling for the fiery emergence of hatred. Even the civilized want to turn their fire hoses against the barbarians. And when ‘peacekeeping’ itself is no longer permitted, then… The entirety of South America is pock-marked with civil wars.

Who would rescue South America? No one, when the empire of the Northern continent forbade any rescue effort from Europe or Asia.

Under these harsh political border limits, the planet’s oceans mattered. The Panama Canal, despite its modernization for aircraft carriers, was a mere capillary on the globe. A mere eighty kilometers long, the Panama Canal was more like a Soviet land frontier than a world waterway.

North of the Panama Canal, Central America was a broken necklace of impoverished states riven with discords. It seemed unlikely that the natives of these hotbeds of poverty and anger would try to seize the Canal. Hence, this planet’s sewer needed only a few state-of-the-art customs and border checkpoints; no need to overstrain resources by fencing everything in sight. Instead, the Canal security was a principled system of triggers and reactive blocks.

The supposed threat came from the North — although, to tell the full truth, due to an incredible bending of the Isthmus of Panama, any threat from the North had to arrive from the South.

Local geographical discrepancies have no impact on the overall global picture.

There is another circumstance which also seems irrelevant. Nobody, not even a madman, would dare to leave the Panama Canal and try to reach mellow Arizona, New Mexico or Kansas by marching on foot. There are far too many national borders, even badly-organized ones, and too many military bases in the way. Panama’s border guards wear Panama’s chevrons, but they are paid in new US dollars. Sometimes the local guards relax and take their fingers from the triggers.

However, the brothers-liberators despised imperialism’s forward-defense lines. The task at hand was to block the ocean artery: destroy the Canal. The bomb crossed the Pacific Ocean and was unloaded in the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas. The smuggled bomb made its approach from the north, although, from strict point of geographic fact, it had to arrive from the south.

The weapon was transported in small pieces, disassembled, on the shoulders of professional guerrillas from the Nicaraguan Liberation Front of the Central America (NLFCA). Cars were never used, so road inspections were avoided. By the time the assembled bomb was firmly saddled on the Serbian’s back, it had infiltrated many jungles, savannas and mountains. Now it had achieved its purpose, and its time had come.

#

Given its overall length — eighty kilometers in general — sixty five on land — the Panama Canal had a vulnerable shore. The human border guards could not stand one meter apart. The Gatun Lake was accurately mapped, but so broad in places that its opposite shores were invisible to patrols. This Gatun Lake composed half of the canal. And — very conveniently — the lake was at high altitude in the canal’s terrain.

So, if you could just explode something large in this lake — a blast of the geographic scale of the Indonesian volcano of Krakatoa — the Canal would certainly vanish entirely. The cascading Gatun Lake would wash away all the Canal locks. Unfortunately, the brothers-liberators lacked this grand opportunity. They had a more modest explosive available, and according to the charge’s carrier — Foška Džyurdže — this charge was too weak for any major destruction. It was up to him, as the expert on the ground, to find the best point of attack.

The Serbian carrier believed that his bomb was weak and the Canal was huge, but mass destruction and major civilian casualties were not the political goal. The bold attack on the Panama Canal was the demonstration of a new, shocking capacity, like the “Enola Gay” plane attacking Imperial Japan. It was not the task of Foška Džyurdže to ponder geopolitical correspondences: his duty was to carry and to detonate.

In his first task, carrying the bomb, he was doing well, but he had no understanding of the bomb’s detonation. He’d been taught to use a certain set of switches, but those controls were pure tinsel. He was no engineer or designer, and he believed whatever he’d been told to him by the straight-faced mission planners.

Brave and cheerful, he resolved on what seemed the best scenario: to abandon his backpack as close as possible to a vulnerable canal lock. Then he would make his getaway on the more-or-less functional Pan-American Highway.

The crowds of Panama were a big problem. It was easy for him to lose himself in the crowd, but he might also be spotted there. The local police and US marine patrols were suspicious of the crowds. Also, a foreigner with a heavy rucksack was a curiosity, and sometimes local informers were zealous.

Time passed and the bomb on his back grew cruelly heavy. Foška Džyurdže had been hand-picked for his European looks, strength and stamina, but after lugging the backpack along the canal shore, his legs felt like wooden stilts and his shoulders were splitting. Despite his tottering knees and his cramped back muscles, he pretended to be a merry tourist, feasting his eyes on tropical nature. He was drenched in nervous sweat, but in the ninth latitude, it was summer all year long.

The military patrols had many dogs and sensors. If they singled him out with heavy backpack, the cops would be all over him.

The rural landscape of Panama was densely populated, full of fertile farms irrigated from the Gatun Lake. Every crossroad had crowded benches and busy market fruit stalls. He didn’t dare to trespass the farmers’ fences and trample their crops, since the peasants would raise a fuss and the police might appear. Some farmstead gardens entirely blocked the access to the Canal, and his prospects for bomb attack were seriously narrowed.

Space was cramped, and he didn’t have much time, either. Of course, he wanted to attack the Canal while the “Fenimore Cooper” battle aircraft carrier was crossing the Isthmus of Panama. The carrier moved only by day, but he didn’t dare attack it by night. The American marines had infrared night-vision helmets, and a lone attacker creeping up by night would be an easy target for a computer-vision system.

Foška Džyurdže’s goal was to leave his backpack close to a vulnerable Canal lock, retreat two hundred meters, and then close the shiny remote-control detonator in his keychain. But, on reaching the real Panama Canal and seeing the real situation, he realized that an abandoned tourist back-pack would almost certainly be stolen. Wandering beggars and derelicts seemed to be everywhere.

He might distract the Panamanian beggars, though, by throwing American money at them. If he threw heaps of American cash into the air, a mad scramble would ensue and no one would notice his abandoned backpack bomb. Of course some cops would show up along with the disordered crowd, but so what? They would all be slaughtered by the shrapnel from the Canal.

It was a matter of proper timing. Bombers excelled at timing, but Foška Džyurdže could not guess that his circuit detonator was a fake.

#

The brothers-liberators had many tactics for exploding bombs, and killing their bearers, too. Those who knew these methods of internal treachery were particularly well-paid. Of course they knew that it was evil for terrorists to treacherously murder their own fellow terrorists, but this was 2030, and they’d managed to erase any rudiments of past conscience.

Brainwashed by the media, they’d lost their mammalian sense of human sympathy. Still, they remained men, Homo sapiens, and for all their neurotic knots and habitual crimes, it proved biologically impossible to erase all sense of shame. The enemy dies, the civilian crowd dies, but your own brother liberator, a foot-soldier, he too is never seen again.

The Canal mission was particularly complex and the whole organization was implicated in these decisions, right to the top. Though there was only one bomb carrier, there was a host of controllers, some known to one another, and some unknown. Independent observers were surveilling Foška Džyurdže. They had multiple trigger devices installed on the Serbian’s backpack. But none of them would be able to detonate the bomb alone. They had to pick a time and reach a network consensus.

Accurate placement was of supreme importance. Above and beyond the hierarchy of the G.W.L, the blue tropical sky was not so innocent as it seemed. Above the sky-blue atmosphere, above the purple stains of fading azure, large big-eyed machines stabbed the black emptiness with their gaze, and they were not astronomers: they were staring at the sinful earth, and the turbid seas slick with pollution.

The G.W.L. did not own these satellites, but the machines were participants in the scheme. The spy machines, belonged, supposedly, to the North America mother state, but did their ownership matter to the telescopes, did their lenses see any worse for that? Information is a strange type of property. If someone picks out and relishes a few dainty megabits — nothing so terrible happens.

Of course it made no sense to rely entirely on iron telescopes endlessly free-falling in orbit. Spies work as well in an atmosphere as in airless space. For instance: a small, apparently innocent cargo ship sailing under the Indonesian flag, patiently waiting in shallow offshore waters, not far from San Miguelito.

The captain’s mate had a Ukrainian surname: Tymoshenko. He had never heard of the G.W.L., but among his many official duties, he also unofficially surveilled US military ships.

So, when the mighty Fenimore Cooper passed near his Indonesian cargo ship, pulled by four powerful tow boats leaving four foaming wakes, the Ukrainian mate dialed a certain cell phone number. He complained. The superpower’s battle aircraft carrier was breaking the schedule, squeezing into the Panama Canal and costing all the civilian ships at least five hours of good time. Well, those who own the ocean’s arteries, call the shots.

Tymoshenko’s call was routed, via satellite, to agents on the ground. This pair of “tourists” were pretending to be stuck in a stalled electric car with a flat battery. One had an old-fashioned telephone, which hung from the dash on a charge-cord. The phone rang.

“Our brother has come for a visit,” recited a female voice. “He says hello to you.”

“I don’t think brother will be staying too long,” said the tourist. He winked at his partner, who gazed with binoculars at the surroundings.

Their electric car suddenly worked again. The “tourist” took the wheel, and he waved a friendly hand as they passed a police checkpoint.

#

By 2030, world scientific research and development was spinning its wheels, but it hadn’t stopped entirely. Science was under siege, but there were still advanced thinkers in progressive redoubts who understood what was at stake, and they had dug in. Applied technologies went on with their calm assault, although malfunctions multiplied. On this background, the search for tools against terror was well-financed, although global victory was impossible.

Military science wasted no time, and technically, it did not matter who one worked for: peacekeepers or terrorists. Science marched on, moving rather more quickly than Foška Džyurdže, whose sweating back was breaking under his burden. The bomber was fed up.

The Serb had repeatedly approached the Panama Canal, only to be frustrated by layabout Panamanians who had nothing better to do than to stare at him, demand dollars, and offer him something illicit to smoke. The Panamanians would save their own lives if they ran like hell from the imminent blast, but since they weren’t telepathic, they couldn’t see the lust for destruction within his head.

At this moment a Toyota electric car, driving slowly, stopped in the distance. The electric car was parked illegally, but the cops failed to notice this drab vehicle, because the magnificent Fenimore Cooper was launching aircraft. A flying object shot silently upwards from the Migaflores lock in the Canal. This aircraft was a multi-purpose helicopter SN-73 “Dinosaur”.

Within five minutes. a second, similar chopper had joined the first. The Fenimore Cooper was moving as slowly as a hammered nail, its vast bulk lifting by the canal’s complex water-transferring system. The trapped carrier was inching toward the relative freedom of Gatun Lake.

From where Foška stood, he could easily see the carrier’s slowly growing antenna towers and several mobile flat surfaces: arrays of sky-mapping and target identification radars. The carrier’s radar monitors were almost useless in the Canal, though, because mountains shaded the horizons. Instead, the two flying Dinosaur choppers were the mobile eyes of the Fenimore Cooper. The Panamanians could see these flying imperial aircraft, but in return, the helicopters could surveil almost all of Panama.

Foška Džyurdže, moving near the canal parapet while burdened by his heavy backpack, watched the Navy helicopters. Would it be worth the risk, he thought, to try to directly blast the aircraft carrier? He hadn’t been ordered to do that, and the police would be alert — but the result might be superb.

Surely, at least a few uniformed Yankee sailors would get riddled with shrapnel. With some luck, the bombed carrier might even catch fire. A highly interesting prospect — but these were just kamikaze dreams. A lone man would never get away with directly assaulting a huge aircraft carrier. The pain from the backpack straps was affecting his judgement.

He slid the heavy bomb from his shoulders.

Inside the Toyota electric car, the two fake tourists were scanning the canal shore with small electronic binoculars from their glove compartment. One gazed with apparent wonderment at the aircraft carrier, while the second deftly located a tall man with a heavy backpack. They recited a code phrase into their phone, and listened for the reply.

For a moment the brothers-liberators were hesitant. Precious seconds were passing. The tall man man did not have the rucksack up on his back, as had been planned. Instead he had the pack down on the ground, near his legs. Would that position badly affect the blast radius? It was one thing to instantly blast a comrade’s torso to bits, but to blow a brother’s legs off and leave him to his fate, it caused a moment’s concern.

But they wondered in vain. Everybody had been deceived. Every participant of the drama was mistaken about the reality. Foška Džyurdže was in fact a kamikaze, though he didn’t want to be one. He had no idea of the true power of the bomb on his back. The men in the car thought they were safe, out of range

The operatives were also entirely wrong about the aircraft carrier. The Dinosaur choppers were not aloft to show off current fashions in naval helicopters. The Fenimore Cooper was swimming across Panama under the command of a Captain who was a true sailor. He was diligently patrolling the entire area with all the electronics he had.

Supersensitive antennas had caught the phone conversations of the brothers-liberators. They even had an inkling of illicit activities from a satellite flying kilometers overhead. Entire nations, even some continents could envy the cyberwar power of the Fenimore Cooper.

Without any human aid, reconnaissance computers were decoding information, tracking phone calls. They pinpointed mobile phone locations to within a quarter of their frequency wavelength. These devices never stopped to wonder, they tirelessly followed their algorithms, and they had been programmed by geniuses.

Moments passed, and the brother-liberator, sitting in his cheap Toyota, continued to day-dream. He was waiting for the distant mule to do something useful with the backpack, or at least move the bomb farther from the car.

Meanwhile a priority message signal lit up on a carrier computer screen. A reconnaissance department officer put aside his routine work and examined the system’s threat report. He was a professional: he responded at once and informed a superior.

The carrier’s radio suppression system was designed to prevent missile attacks, and to confuse other targeting systems. In its “full power” mode, it could black out civilian telephones, radio-transmitters, TV sets, and TV stations for thirty miles around. Mountains would bounce the signals, but the threat was nearby.

Overhead, the second Dinosaur chopper turned on its reconnaissance unit. The pilot did this by force of habit: one of the major purposes of the SN-72 Dinosaur was to search for enemy nuclear submarines. The pilot didn’t expect to find any enemy submarine in the Panama Canal’s narrow lock and chamber systems. But he looked anyway, because it was easy and cost nothing. He saw a blip.

Nuclear radiation. The chopper co-pilot also took an interest.

“See this? They told us the Fenimore nukes are well insulated.”

“Inspect that!” the first pilot commanded. The co-pilot started a scan. It was supposed to take twenty-eight seconds. They never saw the result.

#

The Fenimore Cooper’s equipment was busily sifting and decrypting. The fragments came from different net addresses, each a puzzle by itself. But the hyperfast reconnaissance computers were finding certain hints: especially, a large subset of codes used as initiators for nuclear warheads. If any human intelligence analyst had found that data, they would have called it clairvoyance.

But these cybernetic achievements were useless. The warhead codes had already worked.

Foška Džyurdže had reached a decision. He set the backpack on the cement of the Canal rim, then reached in his pocket and began throwing dollar bills.

Banknotes flew in the air. At first, Panamanians simply didn’t notice him: the agitated American helicopters were much more interesting, as they turned and wheeled in the sky, showing their strange, insect profiles.

A police officer noticed the Serb’s odd behavior. He also noticed that that the apparent tourist had abandoned his big backpack and that the rucksack seemed oddly solid, upright and stiff. But the cop lacked time to do anything about that.

In their rental car, the two brothers-liberators were watching the carrier through binoculars, and toying with a bomb detonator that they thought would surely work. But it did not work: it was a ruse, it had no function.

Every complicated act of physics must happen simultaneously on several levels. Somewhere on a very low level — microscopic — plutonium cores were divided. A synthetic reaction took place, of tritium turning into helium. Another tiny batch of plutonium was divided. Each batch was larger, acting under the “matryoshka principle” — each layer detonated the next bigger one, and, in a very short period of time, instantaneous as perceived by humans, huge energy splashed out into an external state.

The Soviet hydrogen bomb had been invented around eighty years ago, by the physicist Sakharov. The new improved version was portable, which is why it lacked the usual thick steel casing.

To control the fusion reaction, a complicated system of focused charges was applied. The trick was all in the scale and timing; the plutonium sphere erupted because the nested explosions acted as their own pressure vessels. Nesting chemical explosions was a tricky math problem, but the human brain is good at math, and once computers appeared, mathematics leapt even farther. And now the abstraction of mathematics was wreaking utter havoc on human beings in a terrifying physical reality.

For one brief instant, a hydrogen glow flashed through Foška Džyurdže. The paper dollars, which he’d flung about his head, disappeared, fried in mid-air by ultra-powerful X-rays, as if the dollars had failed some almighty authenticity identification and been briskly burned as counterfeits. What happened to Foška Džyurdže himself was less like a cremation than sheer entropy.

Several dozen tons of concrete, at a range of approximately eight meters from the epicenter, were swiftly vaporized. A small amount of concrete, for, although it was a hydrogen bomb, it was still a portable atomic device. Its modest total capacity was barely three megatons of TNT.

#

Before the great sound, before the mighty echo of a blast wave off the surrounding mountains, before distant cities, scattered over the shore, rang with the nuclear blast, before the capital panicked, before millions of witnesses heard the noise, they saw a subtler factor: “luminous radiation.”

For an ultrafast phenomenon like a nuclear impact light pulse, people are like static stage decorations, background cut-outs. Those who are close to the great light evaporate, just as quickly as dollar bills fluttering in the air. Those who stand farther are charred with the light. Even at great distances, those who stand at an unlucky angle are blinded.

Instant blindness happened to the brother-liberator sitting in Toyota. He had chosen a bad moment for binoculars. But he did not suffer the meager lifespan of a blind man, begging for charity dollars with a crumpled hat on the ground. The great blast picked up his electric car, carried it airborne two hundred meters, and smashed the metal frame, and the men inside, to the ground, crushed flat.

What about the great aircraft carrier, one would ask. Is it like a beached whale, thrown on its back, its screws like a pinniped’s flippers? Calm analysis shows otherwise: that is three kilotons of mass. Energy can’t abolish geometry. Besides, the carrier is somewhat sheltered by the solid Canal lock. If the nuclear blast had struck it in Garda Lake… Then the principles of Archimedes would apply to fluids, and the floating bulk of the Fenimore Cooper would have been flung upward… In the macrocosm, the tiny moments closely studied by the demolitionists are so short. Brief spaces, tiny moments of explosion make such a big difference…

Nevertheless, despite the modest power of a portable hydrogen bomb, we register an entire spectrum of customary doomsday signs. A rising pillar which is even more black than the local mountains?– In place! Mushroom cloud? — You bet! The trill of the radiation sensors climbing to a shriek? Of course!

Oh by the way, what about the SN-72 Dinosaur choppers? Do they still hang in the sky? Negative! One is a metal dragonfly lump some two kilometers away, in a swamp which has noiselessly swallowed it. The other Dinosaur altered its course while searching for the nuclear signal. It was hit at a sharper angle, and its black box will never be found through any locator. Do we put it in the MIA list? Of course!

The Fenimore Cooper was not destroyed. The light flash could not melt it. The shockwave that struck it was a mere fifty-five percent of the explosion’s power. Plasma scorched it, but a plasma fireball cannot last long. It even managed to retain some delicate antenna arrays.

So, was the attack a great success for the brothers-liberators? Or was the living body of Foška Džyurdže reduced, in vain, to entropic state of elementary particles? Can a microbe the size of a man floor a mighty aircraft carrier with one hooking punch to the jaw? Is the attack a knockout? Well, it is never that simple.

An explosion has indirect impacts.

#

The Panama Canal moves water. The modernized lock Migaflores was big enough to hold an aircraft carrier and four tugboats. It had double gates designed to withstand a huge water pressure. But a hydrogen bomb is like a canal lock between micro-world of fission and macro-world of a mankind.

That nuclear lock works for split seconds, but that is enough to turn ordinary matter into extraordinary energy. That energy must be urgently redistributed over the macro arena. Everything is done very fast, because our Universe does not abide any gaps in its bed curtains. The world is spackled in a split second.

The Migaflores lock was well built, but it was mundane concrete, it has no invulnerable force field from the future. It was in direct range of a nuclear fireball, and, right after this 3,000 degree sauna, a shockwave ensued. The wave had a wind speed of two thousand kilometers per hour. Huge tropical cyclones move ten times more slowly, and their winds can uproot whole palm groves and wipe entire villages from the map. Migaflores did not survive those winds. And then all the water moved.

Floods and tsunamis are macrocosmic problems — split atoms do not figure in. The shockwave moved on — to strip the deck and polish the antennas of the Fenimore Cooper, then to sway the surrounding swamps and invade the farms and gardens with a blast of radioactive nuclides.

Then boiling water surged. An aircraft carrier, with a displacement of under hundred thousand tons, is difficult to move. But the water in the broken canal was four stories deep. The carrier smashed into the concrete bottom of the canal and broke it with locked screws.

There were also four towboats inside the Canal lock — quite light creatures, compared with the leviathan.

These tugboats withstood the fiery twister that passed above them — the first was partially sheltered with the great doors of the canal lock, while the second found some protection from a portable aerodrome on shore. But the betrayal of the canal water, their native element, was their doom. They rose, they jumped up floating. The first of the towboats crashed into aircraft carrier, which was only now settling down in history, while the second towboat sank.

Still: a good ocean towboat is two thousand tons of iron, plastic and a rubber knob for pushing barges. International goods traffic is not conveyed by miniature boats. This small monster, thrown back by the stream’s vortexes, rammed the iron gates of the lock. Could it break those gates down — with all its weight, and with the madly swirling water in the lock behind it?

Yes. Everything repeated. The blast wave had stopped, the mountainous echo was fading, but a great Canal is a sequence of communicating water vessels. In each lock, a raging torrent was looking for a gravitational pit.

#

And that is why a giant whale nicknamed the Fenimore Cooper — the most up-to-date of the most modern US aircraft carriers — was lying, beached on land, between two great oceans. It was a clog in a hollow artery, and it was dying from lack of water.

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store