The story is told from the viewpoint of some vaguely unknown intelligent life-forms that live a few hundred light-years from where we do now.
And there’s a scientist in it – an observer. They’re reporting on the observations of radio transmissions from several planets in the nearish neighborhood. It has turned out that Einstein (or their equivalent) was right and for all intents and purposes every species is trapped in a newtonian universe – getting up enough speed to see relativistic effects is so hard and energy-costly that nobody bothers. Every species builds their equivalent of the Hubble space telescope, does some observations, and says their equivalent of “well, fuck.” And that’s it. They just listen. And the observer reports to some big shot, that the planet that was transmitting coded radio signals, you remember, the one that achieved fission and limited fusion? That one? Well, its impossible for anything but a fusion warhead to make that distinctive double-pulse: primary (atomic fission) followed in microseconds by the secondary (atomic fusion) it doesn’t occur in nature; it’s always and uniquely the signature of a weapon.
And they tracked the trickle of pulses, then the double-pulses, and yesterday the number of double-pulses was exactly 2,121. The big shot contacts their superiors with great sadness, and there’s a whole cycle of mourning for the planet and the millions that they never knew. What opportunity for beauty and greatness was lost? Nobody will know; the brief flurry of clicks caught by the radio observatory maps the end of all hope into a set of overlapping wave-forms, an epitaph for a world.
The Teller-Ulam Configuration, it’s called: the X-ray wave from the fission causes a tamper around the secondary to explode into plasma and hyper-compress the secondary until it fuses. I’ve studied the physics of nuclear weapons to the point where I think I understand them, and I don’t believe there is anything like them that occurs in nature. Humans ought to have taken that as a sincere warning from the gods, but Edward Teller was one of the most weak-egoed humans who has ever lived; he wanted so desperately to show how clever he was that he forced the US to solve the very complex engineering problems that create a ball of solar surface on an otherwise unsuspecting planet. The Teller-Ulam configuration makes a distinctive radio crackle: tick-tack with a microsecond between them. Plain old fission just makes a brief tick. It’s the difference between a Hiroshima and everything in Los Angeles being flaming wreckage from the Hollywood sign all the way down to Disneyland in a millisecond. The Japanese called the Hiroshima bomb “pika-don” because the ground shockwave and the air shockwave arrived separately; the name really should have been fitted to the hydrogen bomb instead.
My tax dollars at work.
A friend of mine’s father was at Hiroshima after the bombing. Apparently the harbor was jammed solid with swelling bodies from the people who had jumped into the water to put the flames out, or to cool their burns. So casual, the Americans, who went to observe what was left of a city of shocked and dead people, maimed for life physically and psychologically. And those observers stood by while America made weapons 1,000 times more powerful. That’s what the US is building now, for the Russians and Chinese. If we were smart we would arrest the perpetrators of this conspiracy to kill us all. And I actually think hanging’s too good for them. What they have coolly and calculatedly planned for us makes hanging look like like a kiss on the cheek from a shaft of sunlight on a beautiful morning.