Thursday, September 25, 2014


Imagine the worst idea in the world.

I don't mean a merely bad idea, like trying to rob a bank or investing in a viatical settlement. Those are bad ideas, but they're not world-ending. When I say "the worst idea" I mean something well and truly diabolical. The worst idea is something that is not only dangerous and ill-conceived but can threaten to kill on a scale as of yet unheard of.

But the worst idea doesn't necessarily have to be ill-conceived or poorly thought-out. In fact, it could be the product of sheer genius. The finest minds of a generation could come together and pool their knowledge to create the single worst object the world has ever seen. Because remember, this isn't just a bad idea; it's the worst creation our species has to offer. It's going to take billions of dollars and millions of man hours to bring this monstrosity to life.

The Cold War was a hotbed of terrifying new doomsday devices, some of the worst ideas we've ever had. On either side of the Iron Curtain, nestled away in their secret research bases, the most brilliant minds of the 20th century were at work building new and exciting ways to end all life on Earth. The USSR had the Dead Hand, an autonomous defense system that would deploy their entire nuclear stockpile if the Soviet leadership was otherwise occupied or dead. They also built the infamous Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated. If a Tsar were dropped on Washington D.C. it would destroy every building within a 3.5 kilometer radius from the fireball alone. The resulting shock wave would topple every structure for hundreds of miles as the sheer heat incinerates the entire landscape. And then, the Tsar would kick up a cloud of fallout large enough to render much of the east coast uninhabitable for the next hundred years. In all, a single Tsar Bomba, if dropped on the right population center, would accumulate close to seven megadeaths worth of damage. (Doubly so if dropped on Paris.)

Meanwhile the Americans were busy building their own bigger and better bombs, happily vaporizing the Bikini Atoll in their quest for the perfect thermonuclear device. They also developed such strange novelties as the M28 "Davy Crockett" nuclear artillery, a kind of recoilless rifle designed to fire a small nuclear bomb over a distance of just over four kilometers, making it the smallest nuclear weapon ever devised.

They also worked on plans for a variety of enhanced radiation weapons, bombs designed to have a smaller explosive yield while spreading much more radiation than a "conventional" thermonuclear weapon. Included in this were plans for neutron bombs, which were intentionally designed with thin radiation cases in order to allow neutrons to escape and irradiate the blast site. There were also salted bombs, which came packed with easily irradiated material such as cobalt or gold, which would be spread in the form of deadly, radioactive dust when the device was detonated.

Either of these proposals had the capability to destroy all life on Earth if enough of them were detonated.

And these doomsday devices are certainly impressive. Their potential for destruction is harrowing. But can we really say they're the worst product of Cold War engineering? Because as horrible as these weapons were they lacked the certain pointless cruelty needed to bridge the gap between "terrifying" and "nemesis of all life and creation".

No. There's something even more sadistic than the Dead Hand or cobalt bombs. There is an area-denial weapon more pointlessly cruel and over-engineered than any of those...

There is the SLAM: Supersonic Low Altitude Missile; officially the worst thing mankind has ever set out to build.

The SLAM was developed in the early 1960's as part of Project Pluto, a government program to develop nuclear powered ramjet engines for cruise missiles. At the start of Project Pluto the Air Force was relying on long-range bombers like the B-52 to deliver nuclear munitions. ICBMs were still an emerging technology and military analysts were concerned that the missiles wouldn't be ready in time. So the Air Force started work to bridge the gab between bombers and missiles, hoping to create a cruise missile that could fly under enemy radar and deliver a nuclear payload with virtual impunity. Thus, the SLAM was born.

The SLAM's reactor was developed as a joint venture between the Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission. Together they approached the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design Pluto's reactor. The lab gladly accepted the offer since before then most nuclear engineering contracts where handed over to their rival, Los Alamos. What the Air Force wanted was a compact, lightweight reactor that they could put in an aircraft. This was a tall order to fill since every reactor built up to that point had been encased under several feet of concrete. Never mind powered flight, precious few reactors had been built to even be portable. What Project Pluto needed was several leaps and bounds in metallurgy, a material that could withstand the near 2330 °F expected to be pulsing through the reactor. The sort of metal used in jets and missiles before then could only be expected to liquify in the presence of such extreme operating conditions.

Not even the exotic compounds used in the X-15 hypersonic jet were expected to be able to withstand the the stresses the SLAM was expected to endure. This missile would have to pass through wind and rain, enduring salty ocean air, not to mention the extreme heat and radiation produced by the reactor. Before long it was decided to use ceramic to construct the fuel elements, much like how ceramic would be used in the construction of the space shuttle years later. So, Livermore ended up approaching the Coors Porcelain Company (yes, that Coors) to construct the hundreds of pencil-shaped fuel elements for the reactor. As time went by it started to dawn on the scientists just how durable this missile would be, leading to project director Ted Merkle giving it the nickname "The Flying Crowbar".

And keep in mind this was all uncharted territory. While simple in theory, ramjets are notoriously difficult to test in the air. This difficultly is surely compounded when the ramjet in question is spewing radiation every which way. And yet, progress was slowly being made. Chance-Vought was commissioned to design the airframe and the shape of SLAM, which had come to encompass all of Project Pluto, was slowly coming together. Soon enough, there was a complete picture of what SLAM would look like and what it would be capable of.

Besides the rudders, the Pluto would have virtually no moving parts. It's fuel elements were arranged like a honeycomb and kept subcritical until just before take off. After that, the only thing protecting it's electronics and nuclear payload was a thick shadow shield. The ground crew were basically on their own.

Once take off was authorized the SLAM would be launched from a ramp using a cluster of rocket boosters. These would be necessary to get it up to the speed needed to force air into the ramjet. After take off the missile would navigate using an early TERCOM computer, using radar and radioed commands to map out it's surroundings.

Once the rocket boosters broke away the missile would be left flying under it's own power; drawing air into it's inlet which was then heated by the reactor, creating thrust. The missile would continue to fly at high altitude approaching Mach 4.2 before making a rapid descent as it approached Soviet airspace. From then on, the SLAM would level out and fly at extremely low altitudes, just barely above tree top heights, weaving around enemy radar as it closed in on it's target.

The missile came equipped with an enormous payload of up to sixteen thermonuclear warheads, each one capable of incinerating a city and all it's people. The SLAM would come careening across the landscape, dropping it's bombs on all manner of military bases, munitions stores, hospitals, anything that could aid the enemy in the coming post-apocalypse. It would then tear off into the sunset to vaporize the rest of the country. Relying on it's TERCOM navigation system, the missile would be able to snake it's way up the coast dropping bombs on a multitude of preprogrammed targets and making course corrections as need be.

And if Pluto's nuclear stockpile somehow wasn't enough to destroy the offending hemisphere, don't worry. Because researchers working on Project Pluto quickly realized that having the missile flying a crisscrossing pattern over the enemy country was more than enough to leave it an irradiated wasteland. Remember, the Pluto's nearly 600 megawatt reactor was almost entirely unshielded, meaning it would leave a plume of deadly radiation in it's wake wherever it went. Merely having a SLAM fly overhead would be enough to give a lethal dose of radiation to any would-be communist sympathizer. The neutron radiation would be enough to poison the land, indiscriminately killing all plant and animal life and leaving a trail of destruction wherever it went. Or if you were anxious to get this thing out of the air as soon as possible you could deliberately crash it, making a nice radioactive crater out of whatever unfortunate satellite nation it plunges into.

And if even that somehow wasn't enough, the SLAM could kill with noise alone. Remember, the missile was proposed to be around fifty-two feet long and weighing twenty-five tons; about the same size and weight as a steam locomotive. This very large missile would fly at Mach 3, just slightly higher than most rooftops. The shock wave left by it's passing would be strong enough to wreck all sorts of havoc, smashing windows, bursting eardrums, outright demolish buildings. Imagine the sound of a typical passenger jet taking off. Now imagine that same sound, magnified ten times, being made by a passing missile that's spewing gamma rays in every direction.

If the SLAM didn't vaporize you it would cook you like a T.V. dinner. And if it didn't cook you it left you slowly dying of radiation poisoning. And if it somehow didn't do that it would shred you to pieces as it came screaming over the countryside. Now you see why this would have been our worst weapon ever devised? The SLAM wasn't just cruel, it was monstrous. The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile would have been a proper doomsday device.

Sadly, it was never meant to be. As the researchers quickly found out, it would have been impossible to do a proper flight test of the Pluto, not unless they wanted to inadvertently irradiate Las Vegas or Los Angeles. There were some daffy proposals to tie a long steel tether to the missile as it flew circles around the Nevada Test Site or have it fly into the Pacific Ocean and intentionally crash it far from shore. Neither plan was put into action of course.

In the end, the Pentagon scrapped Project Pluto; deeming the missile too dangerous, too provocative to even test. Plus, they were afraid of the Soviets catching wind of their plans and developing their own counterpart to the SLAM, which, if it worked, would be impossible to defend against. But as it turns out there was no race to close the nuclear cruise missile gap and Pluto was quietly forgotten by the public.

However, the scientists at the Lawrence Radiation Lab were able to successfully test both the Tory II-A and II-C reactors, proving the feasibility of the nuclear ramjet. The project also lead to the development of new heat resistant materials. Pluto saw some interesting advances in metallurgy such as the development of ceramic fuel elements based on beryllium oxide and enriched uranium oxide, both highly carcinogenic of course. But eventually, ICBMs caught up with the SLAM, presenting a much cheaper and even more unstoppable delivery system. To the Air Force, the answer was obvious and Project Pluto was discontinued.

Still, one can only imagine a future where the SLAM was eventually tested in the air, a future were people live in fear of rampaging, out-of-control missiles with nowhere left to bomb. It would be a future of endless radioactive deserts, a glowing ball of dust where grass never grows. The land and sea would be poisoned by radiation and Plutos would streak across the sky like glittering needles, threading streams of nuclear fire wherever they went. The whole world would become a tapestry of fire as the missiles reached across the globe. And the last survivor would be there; their body rotting away, ravaged by high energy particles. And with their last dying breath they would claw their way up a pile of rubble and with scorched, sunken eyes they would stare off into the horizon and shake their sallow fist at the machine soaring in the distance. They would slump over and fall silent as she flies off into the sunset.

Atoms for Peace indeed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mandelbrot's Lament


By Tyler Baray

"How does this keep happening to me?" Udil thought to himself.

He gave up screaming several minutes ago when it became clear he wasn't going to stop falling anytime soon. At least it felt like falling. Udil couldn't tell what direction he was going in anymore. A brightly colored field of swirling abstract shapes was rapidly approaching, like the surface of some alien world. He held his arms in front of his face in a vain attempt to protect himself, but the "ground" never came any closer. The swirling, twisting shapes flew on by but no solid surface ever came to greet him. It was as if Udil was falling into the increasingly small, intricate details of an immense painting.

On and on he "fell". Air rushed past his face. His legs flapped around like strips of uncooked bacon. His beard flailed wildly in the wind for hours on end. As time went by and he fell further into the vortices he started to recognize some of the shapes racing by: spirals, twists, something like a giant black clover or heart, as if they were repeating the further in he went. The details were closing in, swirling around him as they emerged from the luminous haze below. The surface became a tunnel as the twisting clusters of light morphed into bands of solid color. He fell further, right into the pupils of dozens of spiraling eye-like shapes, bands of green, purple and pink radiating outward like a star. It became a tunnel of light as he felt himself picking up speed. The tunnel became a chaotic blur as he flew faster and faster. He shielded his eyes from the intense glare, catching a glimpse of the same heart-shape from earlier. He hurtled past it, falling into the infinitesimal gulfs and ridges along it's edge. Suddenly, he was back at the top again.

At least he thought he was. Wherever he was, it looked so much like the rest of the landscape he couldn't tell whether he was still falling in or not. He tried to look around but the rushing air stung his eyes. Further and further he went, past the repeating shapes for what felt like a whole day. By the third or fourth time he fell through the "heart" he was completely convinced that there was no true bottom. He would continue to fall through the increasingly small details of this figure. Forever.

Udil yawned and rolled onto his back. Looking "up", all he could see was an indistinct purple haze, like a night sky without any stars. He closed his eyes and felt the air rushing by. If he didn't stop falling any time soon he would probably end up dying of dehydration. He tried to ignore this and started to doze off as he continued to drop like a meteor into infinity.

For how long he slept, he couldn't venture to guess. But he never seemed to make it to the bottom. To his surprise, sleeping in free fall was mercifully pleasant. With no metal springs or lumpy pillow to keep him awake, he simply went limp and tumbled down to the unseen gravity well below. Later in life, he would remember that occasion as the best night's rest he probably ever had.

"I say Xonxt, look what got caught in our little Mandelbrot arrangement!" A voice said.

Udil woke with a start and flailed around to find the source of the voice.

"Oh my, you're right Zorg!"

"Look at how ugly it is! It only has three dimensions Xonxt!"

"Very gauche indeed Zorg!"

The voices seemed to come from all around him, even emanating from inside his body.

"He doesn't look too happy in there at all, does he Xonxt?"

"No Zorg I don't think he does!"

"Perhaps he'd like our help getting out?"

"Oh that is a wonderful idea indeed Zorg!"

Suddenly Udil could feel something pulling on his entire body. There was a flash of light as he was sent careening through space. All the while he was assaulted by a series of incomprehensible images and sounds. With a sickening lurch, he froze in midair. Floating in front of him were a pair of what looked like giant meatballs. These grew and shrank, sometimes splitting to form more of the alien shapes. The objects changed size, multiplied and divided as if by some impossible feat of magic.

"What are ye!?" Udil finally managed to bellow out.

"We are friends from the fourth dimension!" They said in unison. "And you seem to have fallen into our two-dimensional representation of a Mandelbrot set! Somehow!"

Udil struggled to get away. All the while the higher-dimensional beings floated around him and laughed.

"How did such a three-dimensional creature find their way here Zorg?"

"I don't have the faintest idea Xonxt!"

A wave of pain suddenly shot through Udil's body. It felt like a sudden, intense cramping or like something was trying to pull his insides out. He doubled over and clutched at his stomach, wimpering.

"Zorg, you really mustn't prod them on their insides like that! They don't enjoy it."

"I'm sorry Xonxt, I sometimes forget how these lower-dimensionals work!"

Udil managed to squeak some kind of response.

"I say Zorg...does this one look at all familiar to you?"

"Hmm, yes. Now that you mention it..."

A cosmic meatball floated towards his face and gently started to orbit around his head. Several others appeared in the air around his face. Gingerly, they pressed down on his head and slowly moved it this way and that. Udil quivered as he said a silent prayer to the Everfire. He clamped his eyes shut, trying to block out the mental image of his head being torn from his shoulders.

"Look at those little 3-D legs...and those livers inside it. If I know my extra-planar taxonomy, and I certainly do, I'd say this was a Dwarf Zorg!"

"I believe you are right Xonxt!"

"Don't eat me!" Udil shouted. The creatures laughed uproariously.

"Why would we ever want to eat such a small creature Xonxt?"

"It would pass right through us Zorg! Besides, he's not even made of the same matter as we! We are lucky none of us annihilate on contact!"

"We are indeed!"

"Where am I? What is this place!?" Udil said.

"Of course! His tiny eyes cannot even fathom his surroundings!"

"You are in Hyperbolia traveler! The land of four dimensions!"

"But he still looks familiar doesn't he Xonxt? And not just because he is a Dwarf!"

"You are right! There is something different about this Dwarf, something that can rarely be said about their kind!" They both laughed. Another meatball materialized and yanked on Udil's beard.

"Look at his rosy beard! And this little collection of crystals!"

"And look here! See this symbol on his outer layer?"

The two creatures prodded him as they murmured amongst each other. All at once, they gasped and loosened their grips on him.

"You don't think-"

"I do indeed Zorg!"

Suddenly, a watery, gelatinous bag appeared in the air in front of Udil's face. A large black spot, like a pupil slid into view from no direction in particular.

"Sir, are you Udil Bronzebolt? Champion of the Everfire, warrior of Feresia?"

Udil stammered. "...Who's asking?"

"It is indeed! A bonafide celebrity in our midst!"

"Exciting indeed Xonxt!"

The creatures started prodding him again. From all around came invisible claws or tentacles or something, pulling his hair or forcing his limbs around like a rag doll. To his horror, he felt something prying at the contents of his stomach.

"Look at all these souvenirs! Trinkets he's kept from his travels no doubt!"

"And now he's come to steal from our little corner of the multiverse! Exhilarating!"

Suddenly, half of Udil's canteen appeared in the air, with half the water sloshing around inside. It started to fade away, like slices of the canteen were being shaved away until it disappeared again. The entire canteen reappeared then disappeared again. The contents of his backpack were floating in the air around him. As he struggled against the forces keeping him in place he caught a glimpse of Scully floating through the air. The human skull he carried with him was melting away, leaving it's empty interior exposed for him to see.

"What is going on!?" She shouted. "What am I looking a-"

"Bring 'er back!"

"Back? From where? She never left!"

"Not at all! She is right here before your nose! Just ever so slightly into the fourth dimension!"

Scully suddenly reappeared spewing expletives. Just as quickly as she materialized, she vanished again.

"And back she goes! She's right there, but so far out of reach!"

"Zorg, it is impolite to tease the lower-dimensionals!" They both laughed.

"Udil, is it true you were reborn to a human woman once?"

"And that you were summoned by the Cult of Shuth-Meleth on accident?"

"Uh, well..." He stammered.

"And is it true that you testified before the Xa Hegemony on behalf of the Kretak Supreme?"

"The what now?"

"Surely you remember the Supreme! It is the most prestigious of three-dimensional lifeforms! It was greatly honored by your testimony!"

"Lads...I...I've never 'eard of a Kretak."

They both gasped. "Esteemed Bronzebolt, surely you don't mean to tell us that in addition to living in only three dimensions of space, you still inhabit only one dimension of time?"

"What in Armok's name is a dimens-"

"The poor creature! I believe he only experiences time linearly Xonxt!"

"I'm afraid you're right Zorg!"

"What are ye talkin' aboot!?"

"Forgive us esteemed Dwarf. But I'm afraid we have just alluded to events that, for you, have not transpired yet!"

"It is good he isn't in his own timeline right now Zorg!"

"A frightening paradox indeed Xonxt! But I shudder to in a timeline? I find even a timeplane cramped at times!"

"You should move around those times then!" They both laughed. The eye-like bag reappeared.

"We cannot help you with your time-problem, sadly. But perhaps while you are here we can give you a taste of life in four spatial dimensions?"

"Very charitable indeed Zorg!"

"What does that mean?" Udil said.

"You would not become 4-D like us of course, not even we have the biomancy to perform such a feat. But we can fire a beam into your eyes, allowing you to see light as we do. For a brief time, we can let you see four dimensions!"

"Physicists everywhere would relish such an opportunity!"

"I don't know..."

"Please? We would be honored to show you! It would be a gesture of goodwill from one dimension to another!"

"As long as ye stop pokin' me innards!"

"Of course!"

"An' gimmie back me stuff!"


Just as Udil considered agreeing a beam of white light was fired into his eyes. He cried out as his eyes quivered in their sockets. The landscape around him started to melt, or started expanding, he wasn't sure which. Everything seemed to be stretching, growing sharper. He felt like his vision was becoming clearer, but he couldn't put into words exactly how. His eyes watered as the muscles in his face quaked uncontrollably. The whole world was unfolding around him.


"I...can see...everything..." Udil said.

It all suddenly made so much sense. Why couldn't he see any of this before? It seemed so obvious. There was an odd cubical shape in the distance. As his eyes adjusted he could see the entire surface of the cube; front, back, top, bottom. Not only that, he could see inside and watch the squirming, worm-like creatures living inside. And he could see inside of them. The entirety of every object was suddenly laid bare for him to see. He couldn't just see a certain angle of the objects around him, but the entire three-dimensional form, unfolded for him to see.

"Udil...what did they do? Why are you looking at me like that...?" Scully said.

To him, the skull looked like a blossoming white flower, reaching towards and away from him, receding into a distance he had no name for yet. The entire outer surface was there, laid out like a sheet as her hollow inside was pulled open to see. Every crack and crevice was there. She had become a kaleidoscope image, the whole world was an explosion of light and form the likes of which he had never seen before.

"'s beautiful."

"Yeah, no. That's where I draw the line. Change him back."

"But he is enjoying himself so much!"

"Now you see it esteemed Bronzebolt? Whereas you, a three-dimensional creature can see into a square and see every portion of it, inside and out, we, as four-dimensionals can see the entirety of a cube, inside and out."

Udil turned to see his captors for the first time. He suppressed a scream as he tried to make sense of what he was looking at; hundreds of appendages, not quite tentacles, but not quite claws either, were writhing in the air. Dozens of eyes dotted the molted grey surfaces of the enormous beings as their long antennae whipped around in rhythmic unison. The two beings weren't inside-out like the rest of the scenery. Their waving hides rippled as they danced in place, the three dimensional surfaces of four dimensional creatures. They stuck out a long appendage, appearing from beyond their bodies to keep Udil from stumbling over.

If seeing a three-dimensional object in four dimensions was beautiful, seeing Xonxt and Zorg as they were meant to be seen was like a miracle. Udil couldn't help but break down crying.

"Now you see what you have been missing? And consider, to us this is every day reality."

"Why couldn't I see this before?"

"How could you? Before now you lived in mere space, never knowing the greater elegance that is hyperspace."

"Just imagine it Zorg; to a denizen of Flatland, our esteemed Dwarf would be the extraordinary higher-dimensional. And he would be the one teasing them with his incredible third dimension. And here we are, doing the same with our fourth."

"Perhaps someday we will receive a visit from a five-dimensional Xonxt!"

"Over my dead body Zorg!"

Udil was breathlessly taking in his surroundings. The whole world seemed new to him. An entirely new direction of motion was opened before his eyes, a whole facet of existence he had no idea was there before. It seemed so obvious, so perfect. He was ashamed that he wasn't aware of it before.

Overjoyed by what he was seeing he looked down at his hands.

A wave of nausea washed over him as he saw the skin of his hands peeled away, revealing the muscles below. That was peeled away, revealing the pulsating blood vessels, which were opened to show the pumping blood coursing in and around his hands. His bones were floating in midair, appearing both inside and out, the gooey marrow visible wherever he looked..

His eyes traced the length of his arms. Everywhere it was the same; he had been dissected from the inside out. Now every muscle, every vein, every organ was suspended sickeningly in midair. As he looked down at his chest he could see his tattered green shirt, occupying the same space was the brand of the Everfire, his ribs floating like a grisly chandelier. His heart pulsated like a fleshy flower in his chest, blood flowing in and around it in utter defiance of gravity. His whole body had exploded, every square inch of his person had been made visible.

"Udil, are you alright?"

He tried to shut his eyes, but he could only see his own eyelids sliding into place. Somehow, he could also see around them. No matter how hard he tried, the whole world remained open to him. He suddenly felt lightheaded as he could see the blood rushing past his own brain. Zorg reached out a limb to keep him upright. All he could do was watch as the appendage somehow managed to reach past his organs and grasp at his shirt collar. It's suction cups latched onto it from seemingly every angle possible.

"Perhaps...this is a little much to take in all at once."

"Yes, perhaps that is enough of the fourth dimension for now."

Udil was suddenly afraid to stand, worried that he might topple over and scrap his kidneys on the rocky floor. He looked down at the whirling vortices of meat he called his legs and stared deep into floor. It was rock. It was all rock. Rock all the way down. Terror seized him as he realized it: He was seeing clear through the other side of the world.

"I think we've made a terrible mistake Zorg."

A salty taste welled up in the vicinity of Udil's mouth. He looked down at his wagging tongue, watching as the muscles that used to be inside it contracted involuntarily. A cold sweat broke out somewhere as he felt himself starting to retch. He tried to look away. But no matter where he turned he could always see his own body suspended in the air from every conceivable angle, interior and exterior. No matter where he turned he couldn't help but see himself. Suddenly he noticed his stomach gurgling, the slimy contents of which were forcing itself past his esophagus. All at once, a stream of vomited shot out, or in, he wasn't sure. Udil crumbled to the floor, whimpering; covered, once again, in his own vomit.

"Perhaps we should apologize Zorg."

"I think it's too late for that Xonxt."