Time Fuze

       Randall Garrett / Science Fiction

Time Fuze Produced by Greg Weeks, Diane Monico, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net

_The ultradrive had just one slight drawback: it set up a shock wavethat made suns explode. Which made the problem of getting back home adelicate one indeed...._


By Randall Garrett

Illustrated by Paul Orban

Commander Benedict kept his eyes on the rear plate as he activated theintercom. ”All right, cut the power. We ought to be safe enough here.”

As he released the intercom, Dr. Leicher, of the astronomical staff,stepped up to his side. ”Perfectly safe,” he nodded, ”although even atthis distance a star going nova ought to be quite a display.”

Benedict didn't shift his gaze from the plate. ”Do you have yourinstruments set up?”

”Not quite. But we have plenty of time. The light won't reach us forseveral hours yet. Remember, we were outracing it at ten lights.”

The commander finally turned, slowly letting his breath out in a softsigh. ”Dr. Leicher, I would say that this is just about the foulestcoincidence that could happen to the first interstellar vessel ever toleave the Solar System.”

Leicher shrugged. ”In one way of thinking, yes. It is certainly truethat we will never know, now, whether Alpha Centauri A ever had anyplanets. But, in another way, it is extremely fortunate that we shouldbe so near a stellar explosion because of the wealth of scientificinformation we can obtain. As you say, it is a coincidence, andprobably one that happens only once in a billion years. The chances ofany particular star going nova are small. That we should be so closewhen it happens is of a vanishingly small order of probability.”

Commander Benedict took off his cap and looked at the damp stain in thesweatband. ”Nevertheless, Doctor, it is damned unnerving to come out ofultradrive a couple of hundred million miles from the first star evervisited by man and have to turn tail and run because the damned thingpractically blows up in your face.”

Leicher could see that Benedict was upset; he rarely used the sameprofanity twice in one sentence.

They had been downright lucky, at that. If Leicher hadn't seen the starbegin to swell and brighten, if he hadn't known what it meant, or ifCommander Benedict hadn't been quick enough in shifting the ship backinto ultradrive--Leicher had a vision of an incandescent cloud ofgaseous metal that had once been a spaceship.

The intercom buzzed. The commander answered, ”Yes?”

”Sir, would you tell Dr. Leicher that we have everything set up now?”

Leicher nodded and turned to leave. ”I guess we have nothing to do nowbut wait.”

When the light from the nova did come, Commander Benedict was back atthe plate again--the forward one, this time, since the ship had beenturned around in order to align the astronomy lab in the nose with thestar.

Alpha Centauri A began to brighten and spread. It made Benedict thinkof a light bulb connected through a rheostat, with someone turning thatrheostat, turning it until the circuit was well overloaded.

The light began to hurt Benedict's eyes even at that distance and hehad to cut down the receptivity in order to watch. After a while, heturned away from the plate. Not because the show was over, but simplybecause it had slowed to a point beyond which no change seemed to takeplace to the human eye.

Five weeks later, much to Leicher's chagrin, Commander Benedictannounced that they had to leave the vicinity. The ship had only beenprovisioned to go to Alpha Centauri, scout the system without landingon any of the planets, and return. At ten lights, top speed for theultradrive, it would take better than three months to get back.

”I know you'd like to watch it go through the complete cycle,” Benedictsaid, ”but we can't go back home as a bunch of starved skeletons.”

Leicher resigned himself to the necessity of leaving much of his workunfinished, and, although he knew it was a case of sour grapes,consoled himself with the thought that he could as least get most ofthe remaining information from the five-hundred-inch telescope on Luna,four years from then.

As the ship slipped into the not-quite-space through which theultradrive propelled it, Leicher began to consolidate the material hehad already gathered.

* * * * *

Commander Benedict wrote in the log:

_Fifty-four days out from Sol. Alpha Centauri has long since faded backinto its pre-blowup state, since we have far outdistanced the lightfrom its explosion. It now looks as it did two years ago. It_--

”Pardon me, Commander,” Leicher interrupted, ”But I have somethinginteresting to show you.”

Benedict took his fingers off the keys and turned around in his chair.”What is it, Doctor?”

Leicher frowned at the papers in his hands. ”I've been doing some workon the probability of that explosion happening just as it did, and I'vecome up with some rather frightening figures. As I said before, theprobability was small. A little calculation has given us someinformation which makes it even smaller. For instance: with a possibleerror of plus or minus two seconds Alpha Centauri A began to explodethe instant we came out of ultradrive!

”Now, the probability of that occurring comes out so small that itshould happen only once in ten to the four hundred sixty-seventhseconds.”

It was Commander Benedict's turn to frown. ”So?”

”Commander, the entire universe is only about ten to the seventeenthseconds old. But to give you an idea, let's say that the chances of itshappening are _once_ in millions of trillions of years!”

Benedict blinked. The number, he realized, was totally beyond hiscomprehension--or anyone else's.

”Well, so what? Now it has happened that one time. That simply meansthat it will almost certainly never happen again!”

”True. But, Commander, when you buck odds like that and win, the thingto do is look for some factor that is cheating in your favor. If youtook a pair of dice and started throwing sevens, one right afteranother--_for the next couple of thousand years_--you'd begin tosuspect they were loaded.”

Benedict said nothing; he just waited expectantly.

”There is only one thing that could have done it. Our ship.” Leichersaid it quietly, without emphasis.

”What we know about the hyperspace, or superspace, or whatever it is wemove through in ultradrive is almost nothing. Coming out of it so nearto a star might set up some sort of shock wave in normal space whichwould completely disrupt that star's internal balance, resulting in theliberation of unimaginably vast amounts of energy, causing that star togo nova. We can only assume that we ourselves were the fuze that setoff that nova.”

Benedict stood up slowly. When he spoke, his voice was a chokingwhisper. ”You mean the sun--Sol--might....”

Leicher nodded. ”I don't say that it definitely would. But theprobability is that we were the cause of the destruction of AlphaCentauri A, and therefore might cause the destruction of Sol in thesame way.”

Benedict's voice was steady again. ”That means that we can't go backagain, doesn't it? Even if we're not positive, we can't take thechance.”

”Not necessarily. We can get fairly close before we cut out the drive,and come in the rest of the way at sub-light speed. It'll take longer,and we'll have to go on half or one-third rations, but we _can_ do it!”

”How far away?”

”I don't know what the minimum distance is, but I do know how we cangage a distance. Remember, neither Alpha Centauri B or C weredetonated. We'll have to cut our drive at least as far away from Solas they are from A.”

”I see.” The commander was silent for a moment, then: ”Very well, Dr.Leicher. If that's the safest way, that's the only way.”

Benedict issued the orders, while Leicher figured the exact point atwhich they must cut out the drive, and how long the trip would take.The rations would have to be cut down accordingly.

Commander Benedict's mind whirled around the monstrousness of the wholething like some dizzy bee around a flower. What if there had beenplanets around Centauri A? What if they had been inhabited? Had he, allunwittingly, killed entire races of living, intelligent beings?

But, how could he have known? The drive had never been tested before.It couldn't be tested inside the Solar System--it was too fast. He andhis crew had been volunteers, knowing that they might die when thedrive went on.

Suddenly, Benedict gasped and slammed his fist down on the desk beforehim.

Leicher looked up. ”What's the matter, Commander?”

”Suppose,” came the answer, ”Just suppose, that we have the sameeffect on a star when we _go into_ ultradrive as we do when we comeout of it?”

Leicher was silent for a moment, stunned by the possibility. There wasnothing to say, anyway. They could only wait....

* * * * *

A little more than half a light year from Sol, when the ship reachedthe point where its occupants could see the light that had left theirhome sun more than seven months before, they watched it becomesuddenly, horribly brighter. _A hundred thousand times brighter!_


* * * * *

Transcriber's Note

This etext was produced from _IF Worlds of Science Fiction_,March 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidencethat the U. S. Copyright on this publication was renewed.
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