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The Bomb

An excerpt from 'The Vault Apocalyptia'



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We keep first appointment with a man of immense stature and standing in his field. Great discourse has passed on the nature of his work. He verily invites controversy. He is loved. He is loathed. Few go unmoved. One spectator likened him to the gods (rightly so, though whose and which is subject to terrific debate): "That timeless man," he fathomed, "ageold yet newborn!" He evokes metaphor: "Our common father," another proclaimed him, and we "his bewildered children." And swooned one incisive critic in a penetrating review: "An ape palm weighs the newly discovered element fire . . . A frail pink wrist balances the quiet generations to come . . . Never before so simple! Not until now so clear! A must! Flock to!"

Still, we gather numerous complaints. Certain taxpayers of sound mind claim our man's been aiming for years to do them in with that "confounded hardware" of his, and average Joes of no frenetic stripe avow on their honor the hoodwinker has actually threatened them with employment offers making "the front ends of horses" or some such perversity. In truth not a one of us fares brightly under exalted credentials as his.

Listen: who taught himself in utero, to pass a dull gestation, the art of knots, convoluting his umbilical in pursuit of the flawless sheepshank, clove hitch, or bowline on the bight; who was the infant savant, a Hermes at the lyre, prattling off at eleven months the lexicons of no less than five major nuclear capable countries; who was the marvel tot, duddy's little lummikins, in rompers yet and endeavoring nightly to dispel a chronic dyssomnia by enumerating decidedly unconventional sheep: ". . . 86000 seconds to a day, 31536000 seconds to a year, 61859136600 seconds since Jesus who loves me was born in a manger . . ."; who was the adolescent wunderkind, graduate cum laude, Massachusetts Institute of Technology class of seventyeight, hardly a year to the day after a razor first traversed those pimplecongested cheeks; who is the minder of machines, whom the experts call expert, with his inheritance of numbers ("No sweeter manna than a conundrum unraveled," said he), heuristophile, technolurgist, selfstyled philosophizer—see him? Our genius with the bonus gem, he stirs in waiting just ahead. There in diorama, whitesmocked, hunched, and calculating. Now who, ladies and gentlemen, can that be there? It's not Doppler. It's not Wheeler. It's not Planck. Is it Boltzmann? Is it Bernal? Is it Tesla? Barnhardt or Coulomb? R. Hume or Fizeau? Pascal? Laplace? Is it Kepler, Galileo Galilei? No?—Rube, is that you?

Exhibit A. Curious beginnings. A misfortunate end. Rube, the scientist.

(With a broadly swept flourish the doctor, puffing, indicates the spread of his study: hissing blue jets kiss beaker bottoms; luminous elixirs in alembics boil; bellows huff; pelicans percolate; PC monitors glow greenly, cursors blinking, as lines of data march upscreen. In actinoponic greenhouses, silent underlings poke and weigh exquisite bloated peanut pods, and inject radiobe fertilizer into sturdy stems of ten-foot Arctic avens. Control group respondents, their cancers cured, file buoyantly toward officious technicians uncapping vials of radithor tonic and administering doses of eonite, meteorium, and cyclotrode X. Muted press men clamor at the panels; above them, cybershuttles, flying wings, orbit ivory spires, smokeless stacks. A harbor is visible. Leaving quays, nucleon schooners ply the corridor, exporting cargoes. Several blocks townward, lining broad bejeweled avenues, stand rows of white houses, roof tiles glittering, terraces dripping vines. Plastic clear autos on clean roadways hum by, skimming hushly. It's springtime, the suns shine, teens steer mowers over lawn while moms in capris offer limeade in dixie cups to whistling postmen. Bluebirds trill. Wrens twitter. Downtown, in an immaculate plaza, round public monuments where tourists throng, an orchestra tunes, a parade commences, gongs, kettles, tenor drums echoing the faint rumble from below where the steel dynamos churn . . . )

BOMBS AWAY The United States’ one thousand–plus named test shots are embedded, like toxic truffles, in the text of Brandt’s explosive novel.
  • BOMBS AWAY The United States’ one thousand–plus named test shots are embedded, like toxic truffles, in the text of Brandt’s explosive novel.

A breathing testament to inspired fortitude, Rube over the years has drawn resolution from ingenious corners to deftly turn several physiological perversions toward ultimately his fatherland's behoof. Consider the Rube of nursling years. Beset by developmental aberrations—one, a poorly oriented rooting reflex that provoked the neonatal Rubey at the fragile age of a single hour to nuzzle his sire's feeble nipple over his mother's firmer mamma (since deemed premier vocational training, as many in ordnance R and D are now suckled on the ungenial titsap of fatherhood); and the other, a latent third testicle misdiagnosed on first opinion as a lollock and on second as a scirrhoid and which only manifested outright following the onset of puberty (but then as a boon twice over, accountable for both Rube's vigorous and inordinate nationalism (surfeit testosterone—it courses more thickly than blood!) and later inclination toward things protractive (like limited response scenarios) and things generative (like warhead delivery systems))—Rube, in firm defiance of ill effect or stigma and favored with a hankering for life of a less tender more gruffish nature, nonetheless went on to prosper from a boyhood not unlike the boyhoods of those destined to serve in either abbey or penitentiary, for how similar indeed are all in youth.

Gangly Ruben Boomerkoff, the quintessence of his kin, the flower of his predecessors (the New England Boomerkoffs, née Bombekopf, fine old Saxon stock), whiled a swannish youth in the Cambridge suburbs pursuing under the stewed eye of his father, a widower with too fond a taste for the Islay grain, his three passions: reading in the summer, ice hockey in the winter, and chemistry yearlong. His earliest recollections depict long days decocting pints of fresh whiz into urea precipitates, compounds of which he used to knock stray pets into slumber. Through the aid of some musty volumes misshelved behind histories of horsies and princes, Alexanders and Akbars in the public library's Treasure Room, Rube nurtured a precocious fascination with explosives (but only for experiment, as dated police reports will corroborate), beginning with pelleted powder and guncotton and graduating in time to the simpler nitrogen iodides. Few possessions, indeed, gave Rube greater satisfaction than his collection of craters, arranged by row over the backyard lawn, depths and radii exactingly measured and logged in a binder kept pillowside.

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